I am a Black former member of Peoples Temple who survived the deaths in Jonestown by having been in Georgetown for the three months leading up to the incident. My life in the Temple was bracketed by two Black women. I was a teenager still living with my mother, Mattie Gibson, when she joined in 1973; I stayed on as long as I did because I had not yet devised a plan of escape from Jonestown for my wife Ollie and my infant son. All three died in Jonestown.
It is from this complicated perspective that I watched the play White Nights, Black Paradise. I couldn’t help but noticing from the very beginning that the characters were superficial stereotypes. Many seemed to be presented as stand-ins for various points that the playwright was trying to make. And because they weren’t named after real Temple members, it allowed the playwright to take great liberties with their characterizations, most of which were negative.
More than that, many of the interpretations were just plain troubling. There seemed to be an implicit bias against the Temple and many of the people who joined it.
There were named Temple figures, of course, but the Marceline Jones character was way off, and Jim Jones was truly easy to dislike. Was there nothing human to find in either of them?
After a while – and I admit it – I could no longer give the play the benefit of the doubt anymore. I was reminded of the quote from Martin Luther King’s book, Strength to Love: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
I did appreciate the interaction among the panel members after the play. That interaction did more for me than the play itself.
(Eugene Smith is the author of an upcoming memoir Back to the World (TCU Press, Spring 2021). His previous articles in the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at email@example.com.)