(Jordan Vilchez became a member of Peoples Temple as a teenager when her family joined. She was in Georgetown, Guyana on November 18, 1978, but her sisters and nephews died in Jonestown. She is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her other article in this edition is A Letter to My Nephew Jamal Patterson. Her full collection of articles may be found here. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
On August 29, 2020, I sat down to watch White Nights Black Paradise, a play written by author and educator Sikivu Hutchinson. This play was offered by MOAD in San Francisco and was accessed via the Zoom online conference platform.
Through a lens which focused on the experiences of a few individuals, the play emerges through the awareness of the vital importance of humanizing Black members of Peoples Temple. It is of tremendous value to convey what some of the day-in-day-out conversations and experiences may have been like among a few people. The further we get away from the true story of Peoples Temple – and the stories within the stories within the larger story – we turn further away from learning the many lessons it has to offer humanity. This also means that the story becomes more susceptible to distortion and falling into generalized conclusions which strip it from its nuanced complexity, therefore, mindfulness around accuracy is paramount.
Dramatization and re-creation have a powerful ability to instill deeper understanding and relatability with those who were members of Peoples Temple.
Although some parts of the play seemed difficult to follow – which may have been a result of the technology of Zoom – I could appreciate the candid conversations particularly between the sisters Hy and Taren Strayer. With clearly superb acting talent, Hy’s strength and desire for meaning in life was a true force. She was strong and her sassy demeanor was delightful. I found myself smiling as she expressed herself so fully.
What I saw in the play was a lot of ambivalence in the form of a dissatisfaction with the Temple among the members of the play, and yet an attraction due to it because of a need for belonging and possible opportunity, when little was to be found elsewhere in society, along with a desire to have meaning in life. It seemed that most of these members in the play were in roles that had them half in and half out. There were a lot of people like that in the Temple: one foot in the door and one foot out, but this was certainly not representative of everyone, black and white alike, which is important for viewers to know.
This vocalized ambivalence was a true thing, however, in my recollection, having been immersed in many settings within actual Temple life throughout my teen age years and beyond. It was not common to casually express questions about the sincerity of the Jim Jones. This was rare because it was very common to snitch on your relative, spouse, child for such talk. Obviously, some communication of dissatisfaction did happen, as there were those who chose to leave throughout the Temple’s lifetime, from Redwood Valley, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and ultimately, those who wanted to leave when we were in Guyana.
I found it interesting that Jim’s wife Marceline Jones was presented in the play as a key person and an active leader who was condescending and disingenuous. My experience of her was that, even though she had more of a token presence in Redwood Valley and was rarely present in San Francisco, she was as scarce as she could make herself, fed up with the shenanigans and abusive nature of her husband.
The leadership in Peoples Temple was complex. The white women who were around Jim all of the time were not leaders. They were in competition with one another vying for his attention. They were not strong women and in most cases were abused and manipulated by him. They filled a role in his need for constant admiration and support.
On the other hand, there were plenty of adults who held true leadership roles, and who were not in Jim’s immediate surroundings all of the time. They included Black men and women, such as Johnny Brown, Jim McElvane, and Leona Collier, to name a few.
A missing piece in this play is passion. It is difficult to show in just a few scenes one strong thread of passion that ran throughout our existence in the Temple. The sincerity of our conviction and the closeness we felt towards one another when it came to showing our strength as a unified force to the world was palpable. Although Jim had the ultimate say, the power in our unity existed to a certain degree independently from him. It was the meaning we placed on social justice and standing together as one, identifying with disadvantaged people all over the world. This gave us an internal fire and vibrancy that upheld and fed our souls, even though we were ironically living within a situation that criticized and diminished us, tiring us out so much that we could be manipulated. There was nothing like standing together as an integrated group in our political actions, eager to stand up and be counted, to serve humanity. It would have been nice to see that depicted in the play, but perhaps some of that can be dramatized in someone else’s future productions.
There are plenty of diverse areas upon which we can continue to focus the lens as we seek to facilitate a deeper understanding of who the people of Peoples Temple were. No single work tells it all.
I appreciate the heart and intention out of which White Nights, Black Paradise has emerged, and Sikivu Huchinson’s commitment to justice.