A Year Reconsidered

Photo by Jeff Thomas

1978! It’s a year I reflect on now in a completely different way.

In 1978, I was a 15-year-old freshman in high school. It was a year of new pathways opening and old ones closing. I was very influenced by others and very lost as to who I was as a person. I remember hearing of the Peoples Temple tragedy and how sad it made me to think that so many lives could be lost in a single event. My parents were stunned, shocked and saddened by the news. I can remember them asking each other about people they knew who could have been in Guyana with Jim Jones.

My next memory of Peoples Temple came a couple of years later in the form of a television miniseries. I learned more, but I was even less clear on how this type of thing could happen.

Time passed, with college, marriage, divorce, births of children. The triumphs and tragedies of life rose and fell. If I thought of Jonestown at all, it was without much reflection, just some knowledge and a larger piece of curiosity lingering in the back of my mind.

Now my children are grown, one working hard on her job and doing theater for the love of it, and the other off at college in Santa Barbara. I hear of a play called The People’s Temple coming to the Napa Valley College. I have always wanted to try to accomplish what my daughter has done for many years but never wanted to put myself out there. I wonder if I could audition for a part in this history of life and death. My daughter encourages me, and I try it with her. And I succeed. I get the parts of Liz Forman-Schwartz and Barbara Moore. My daughter plays Bonnie Simon, The Secretary and Annie Moore, the daughter of my character Barbara. As part of my study for this role, I speak to Barbara’s husband, John, who helps me to understand the person his late wife had been so that I can portray her appropriately. He also gives me insight on his daughter Annie so that my daughter could do her justice as well. I find out that many cast members did the same and reached out to survivors. We were never denied the time from these amazing individuals and we are all very grateful.

I struggle to explain the pure exhaustion, pain, hurt, guilt, love, teamwork, empowerment and beauty I was given by being a part of this play. This was my first time on stage, my first time with people of a different mind set, different humor, different directions… in short, the first time I fully understood why my daughter loves this so much. I surrounded myself for the next 10 weeks with the most wonderful people in the world. We immersed ourselves in the most beautifully tragic story in the world. We were dedicated and honored to find the truth and portray it in the best way we knew how, which was with honesty and sincerity.

As I read through the script, I could not help but feel a sense of togetherness and family. We sang the songs of love and togetherness, and all felt even more entwined and interwoven. The characters – the people of Peoples Temple – were people I recognize, that I identify with, all seeking the same goals, all there to help and be one with each other. I started to see where it would be possible to get caught up in concepts of communal living, togetherness and equality (even if I never grasped why people believe Jim Jones was God). I was no longer caught up in the horror of the tragedy but in the love and commitment the Temple congregation had for one another.

At times I was moved to tears and other times moved to laughter, and we conveyed those emotions to our audience each night. We gave them a part history that not many knew of. I prepared myself each night, but – without fail – it did not do a bit of good. I was always touched by each role and part of the play. My bond with my daughter, which was already so very strong, grew even greater.

The play gave our audiences a piece of history they knew little about, but along the way – outside the theater – I learned even more myself. I spoke to people in our community who had been approached by Temple members to join the church 35 years ago. My own parents gave money to the Temple in hopes it would help the community grow and flourish. I also learned that people in our community had relatives who were in Guyana and who didn’t make it home. Their lives were forever changed then, even more profoundly than mine by being a part of this play.

We were blessed to have Stephan Jones, Grace Stoen and Garry Lambrev in the audience one night. Stephan Jones spent time speaking with the cast, sharing stories and thoughts. I felt this experience helped me to understand the human spirit better. It enriched my life, and I believe we did the same with our audiences.

Each night I was touched by the love of the community we portrayed, and each night at the end of the play we would put pictures in the archive boxes of individuals who were lost in this tragedy. Each night I would inevitably pull out a picture of a little one – a baby or a toddler – and I would mourn the loss of such youth and the potential they had.

I want to thank everyone, from our amazing director Jennifer King, to the survivors and families of Peoples Temple for their encouragement, time, effort and assistance. And if you ever get the chance to see the play The People’s Temple, please don’t let it pass you by.

(Dawn Johnson was a cast member of The People’s Temple. She can be reached at DawnJ@paulhanson.com.)