In May 2019, I received a California Humanities grant for my play White Nights, Black Paradise. The award provides funding for a series of performances and community discussions centering Black women’s role in Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Based on my 2015 novel of the same name, the play is the first dramatic production (steeped in the speculative and historical fiction traditions) to focus on the lived experiences, social history, moral dilemmas, and relationships of the African American Peoples Temple community. Prior to the pandemic, the production was scheduled to take place at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in May 2020. In late August, we transitioned to Zoom, in partnership with MoAD, with a cast of exemplary multigenerational actors from Los Angeles and San Francisco (many of whom performed in the production’s L.A. debut at the Hudson Theater in 2018).
Framed within a non-linear, poetic structure, the play contextualizes Peoples Temple vis-à-vis the Great Migration, the Women’s movement, Black Power, and Black disillusionment with traditional African American church institutions. It problematizes historical portrayals of Jonestown that center on Jim Jones and marginalize Black women’s contributions to the church movement. A key element evokes the diversity of religious belief among the members of Peoples Temple, who ran the gamut from Christian Pentecostal to atheist.
I directed the play in rehearsals over the course of three weeks, focusing on the evocative language, intimate relationships, historical context, and interiority of the characters. It was a frequently knotty process made all the more challenging by the technical snares of Zoom. Despite these variables, we were able to navigate the complexity of the piece through the powerful interpretations of the multi-talented cast: Cydney W. Davis, Breeanna Judy, Erin Aubry Kaplan, Philip McNair, Cheri Miller, Scott St. Patrick, Elvinet Piard, Darrell Philip, Elise Robertson, Charlotte Williams, JC Cadena, Ella Turenne, and Selene Whittington. Having worked with many of the actors in several iterations of the play/manuscript (including the 2016 short film and the 2017 staged reading at L.A.’s Zephyr Theatre), I was profoundly appreciative of the family-like vibe we’ve developed over the past four years.
The post-performance discussion with Dr. James Taylor and Wanda Sabir analyzed the sociopolitical relevance and legacy of Peoples Temple and Jonestown for the Black diaspora. Drawing from his scholarship on the Temple’s racial politics and internal culture, Dr. Taylor critiqued Jones’ appropriation of Black religious and charismatic traditions. Sabir reflected on Black women’s agency with respect to sexual violence, resistance struggle, and contemporary San Francisco politics. The discussion also framed the play within the current national context of Black Lives Matter movement resistance against state violence, white supremacy, and economic disenfranchisement – all factors that compelled Black folks to become deeply invested in the Peoples Temple movement.
While the pandemic has precluded live performances of the play for now, actress-activist Cheri Miller (who played two key roles in the production, that of teacher Ernestine Markham and Woman 1, a member of the play’s Black woman-led “Greek chorus”) and I are exploring the possibility of bringing the production to the African American Arts and Culture Center in San Francisco for their annual Black Theater Festival. The grant also calls for a mini-documentary with survivor interviews. We are also considering developing a miniseries with the cast.
Feedback from audience members who responded to MoAD’s evaluation was uniformly positive. One respondent commented that “I was in 8th grade when the Jones Town event occurred. I did not know the back story about the role gentrification played in the massacre.” Others commented on being enriched by learning the “under-looked history and impact of the People’s Temple and Jonestown” and Black women’s marginalized influence and roles.
(Sikivu Hutchinson is an educator, author, and filmmaker. Her writing credits include Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and her latest book Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical. She is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her complete writings for the site are here. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)