Coming from Generation X, my knowledge about Peoples Temple and Jonestown had been reduced to a pair of aviator sunglasses and Kool-Aid. Yes, I was aware of the tragic mass suicides that occurred in Guyana, but the information given to me was more “hearsay” than actual fact. These events happened before my time, so why should I care? I could not fathom how anyone would follow such a deranged and drugged religious fanatic into the rainforests of South America. Even more difficult for me to grasp was the idea that all these members surrendered their lives so effortlessly.
I now realize, I was overdue for a history lesson that would not only shift my perception about Jim Jones and his followers, but would also shake the very foundation of my beliefs.
My education on the subject began with an audition for The People’s Temple at Napa Valley Conservatory Theater. This play had been produced previously by only a handful of professional theatres around the country, and I didn’t know very much about it. Instead, I was more interested in adding another show to my resume than in the substantial knowledge this experience would yield.
My audition side was a verbatim account that Jonestown survivor Vernon Gosney gave about his experience with Peoples Temple and losing his wife. Vernon’s story grabbed me by the tear ducts and wouldn’t let go. I was eventually cast as Vernon, Garry Lambrev and Danny Curtin. These extraordinary men would become the subjects of my study for the duration of the production and the receivers of my lifelong admiration and respect.
Our goal in this production was to accurately represent members of Peoples Temple and dispel any preconceived notions the public might have brought with them into our theatre. Personally, I was obsessed with telling these men’s stories as truthfully and to the best of my abilities as I could.
You can probably guess that this was not an easy undertaking. We spent weeks rehearsing and learning more about this movement. My fellow cast mate’s coined a term to describe the amount of time we each spent in a vortex of research: We called this website “The Jonestown black hole.” With hours upon hours of testimonials, audio tapes, pictures and memories each one of us engulfed ourselves in these people’s lives. I was fortunate enough as an artist to get in contact with both Garry Lambrev and Vernon Gosney. Garry lives only an hour from Napa, so we could arrange a lunch meeting or phone call easily enough. I had to get a little more creative on how I would interview Vernon, since we were separated by the Pacific Ocean. Skype video chats were the solution.
Lunch with Garry began with an awkward introduction that quickly evolved into a philosophical analysis of religion, music, drugs, politics, sex, and how it was all implemented by Jim Jones. For weeks I had been reciting Garry’s words, and now I was enjoying my Hawaiian burger with him at a small restaurant in Oakland. Stephan Jones would later compliment me by saying “your portrayal of Garry was eerily spot on.”
My discussions with Vernon were much more intense. How does one navigate a conversation with an individual he has never met and ask such incredibly personal questions? I was dumbfounded on how I was to segue our video chat into talking about his wife and son. But it turns out Vernon was ready for these questions. My hands trembled as Vernon relived what he believed at the time to be his last moments on earth. Tears flowed freely when I attempted to imagine the anguish he endured. It is extraordinary to meet someone as open and welcoming as Vernon. Without any hesitation he revisited the guilt and mourning endured at leaving his son in Jonestown. He helped me to understand that things at Jonestown – and in life – are not as black and white as we make it. It’s all gray.
It is rare that an actor has the opportunity to portray a nonfiction character on stage. It is even rarer for an actor to have the privilege of meeting and conversing with the actual people they will be representing. Having an ongoing dialogue with Garry and Vernon was surreal. I cannot thank these two fabulous gentlemen enough for sharing such powerful stories about themselves with me.
Yes, our labor yielded artistic gems, but it took a toll. We cried, we yelled, we hugged and we screamed at one another. What had started as just another play, quickly became more than that. Reality and art skewed into one. Hours of sleep escaped me. I came to the realization that, if given the chance, I would have joined Peoples Temple, because it was more than just “some crazy cult,” it was a groundbreaking political movement. And these weren’t just numbers, they were real people. They were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, students, friends and lovers. They were family. They became our family.