I have been a professional actor for 25 years, and have working in plays, television and films. However, nothing in all my years of training and experience could prepare me for the experience of being in the cast of The People’s Temple. Based on interviews from survivors as well as people who died in Jonestown, this play was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.
The rehearsal process alone became all consuming. After I read the script, I spent hours and hours on You Tube watching news pieces, documentaries and anything and everything that I could absorb about the experience. I found myself held captive in what playwright Leigh Fondakowski has called the Jonestown Vortex.
The indescribable loss of life touched me in such a way I felt an obligation to get it right in speaking for the people who could no longer speak for themselves. One of the people whom I portrayed was Pop Jackson, who died in Jonestown. Almost all the pictures of him show his full smile. I could even hear his voice from reading the transcripts of what he said. I felt as though his spirit was inhabiting my body. My “portrayal” of him was validated by Stephan Jones, the son of Jim Jones, who came to see two of the performances. He told me I sounded like Pop and even walked like him. It was very satisfying for me to know that I got it right.
I should explain that I was not concerned with getting it right from an actor’s perspective of trying to wow an audience. Instead, I became obsessed with getting it right to present the humanity of all those who lost their lives.
Like most people, all I really knew about Jonestown was the mass suicide/murder. As I prepared for my multiple roles, I was struck by all the great things that Peoples Temple members had done before that day in November 1978. I was inspired that people of all walks of life, races, and cultures had come together in a meaningful way to make the world a better place. The experience of doing this play made me realize the beauty of the human spirit and of the people who died, and served to reconnect me with my own humanity.
I also feel as though I connected with the spirits of a lot of the victims. There is a scene toward the end of the play during which the cast members move slowly toward a table and pick up pictures of the people who died. Every night as I moved toward the table, a different picture would speak to me to pick it up. One night a small child with blonde hair whom I had not seen before said in his tiny voice, “Don’t forget about me.” When I heard this, tears streamed down my face. I was reminded during this experience that there really is no such thing as death. Sure, the body can be destroyed or die off, but the spirit – the human spirit that is connected to the higher universal power – can never die or be destroyed. It lives on in another time and space. I can honestly say during my experience with Peoples Temple I shared time and space with some beautiful spirits, and I am a much better person for it.
One of the other people I portrayed was Rod Hicks, a man from Detroit who had to identify the body of his sister after the deaths. This was a very personal moment for me, because 13 years ago, my 16-year-old daughter was brutally and senselessly murdered. I started a foundation in her honor at www.lovelifefoundation.org out of my determination to make something good come out of that horrible tragic experience. And the good news is a lot of good has come out of it. The work I did to honor my daughter’s memory got me invited to the White House and recognized from the floor of Congress. Even though I lost one, I have been able to reach thousands of troubled youth through the LoveLife Foundation on radio, stage, and television.
But this all came at a great personal cost. I knew I had neglected my beautiful wife and my surviving children, but what I realized in doing The People’s Temple is that I never got to truly grieve the loss of my beautiful daughter. Doing that scene as Rod Hicks, I found my way back to my own profound and fundamental loss. I literally grieved my daughter’s death on stage every night. Some nights I felt as though I would fall off the edge, but I managed to stay in the world of the play. Even though it was 13 years late, it was what I really needed to do for my own emotional health.
In fact, after doing this play, I feel a closer connection with all my fellow human beings and all living things. This experience has taught me to savor and cherish each day that I am alive and breathing. I appreciate not only my family and friends, but total strangers who pass me on the street. I have such a deep love for my wife after this experience, I hope that we can reconcile our differences and enjoy the rest of our lives together, I feel as though I am living my life for her. I have also come to the epiphany that there really is no such thing as six degrees of separation. We are all one!!
I thank the souls of Jonestown and Peoples Temple for their lives and their eternal spirit, and for enriching my life in a way that I can never truly explain. And I pray that all humanity will come together as one race, the human race. Peace and blessings to all.
(Donald E. Lacy, Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)