“Words Fail”

At the beginning of the year, five English drama students were thrust into a project as part of their A-Level Drama course, to create a piece of “devised drama,” which is completely new material with any theme or idea as the stimulus. We started with a chaotic set of ideas, completely random, and then a member of our group brought in a recording of something called the “Death Tape,” by a man named Jim Jones. None of us knew anything about Jonestown, Peoples Temple or their experiences, but we immediately knew we’d found the stimulus for our drama. From here, we found this website, which became our key. Every single piece of research we did came from here, every word and every letter. We watched a documentary together and read through various transcripts of tapes. We found ourselves in a mess of letters, recordings, songs, articles, quietly uncovering a historical event we never knew about before. Peoples Temple began to change all our lives.

Something about Peoples Temple fascinated us. The rest of our drama class watched as we were consumed by a fire for knowledge. We spent a long time researching how to begin our play, and what angle to take upon the whole series of events. From a critical perspective, if you look at the internet as a whole, people have very strong views about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, often very biased based simply on the media portrayal of the events. But through this website, we uncovered what felt like us to be a more real and truthful feeling, the trail of primary sources left that contained real emotions – pain, passion, excitement, fear – and this was what we aimed to show: a bias-free exploration of Peoples Temple, shown through the eyes of some of the members, their words being brought to life onstage through theatre. With this goal, we began creating material.

Although we were surrounded by endless resources, our production had to work to a time limit, and we decided to focus on a diverse set of accounts to tell the story of Peoples Temple to our fellow classmates and school members, who knew little about the event. We found ourselves individually drawn to specific personal stories that we found in research: Robert was fascinated by Larry Schacht and his medical reports about cyanide; Megan couldn’t stop reading through the endless stories and emotional changes described by Annie Moore in her letters to her family; Stefan and I were moved by the story of Grace and Tim Stoen, and their attempt to reclaim their son; and David took Richard Tropp’s final letter to heart and began dissecting every word. We began using that letter as a through-line for our piece, taking sections of it and weaving them between the stories of the other Temple members, almost making a pathway in our heads.

From there, our piece came alive. We practically lived and breathed our characters in rehearsal, each of us knowing exact details of the Temple members we would be portraying onstage, from their accents to their hometowns. We worked endlessly in rehearsal, creating our drama piece, and for three months we were totally committed. Between other lessons, after school, at weekends, we would meet up and discuss, rehearse and critique our own work. In the end, we created a piece of drama with the intention taken right from Richard Tropp’s letter: “Let all the story of this Peoples Temple be told. Let all the books be opened.”

Through the help of this website, we created something beautiful. We educated people about Jonestown, and changed many people’s opinions about the event. Was it easy? Never. Reading true primary sources and then creating drama based on them was emotionally draining and painful. We cried on numerous occasions. When we first began our research, we managed to stay detached, but as days went on, we developed an unquenchable thirst to know more about the history of Peoples Temple, the people involved and the true passion and ideas. Personally, I was shaped by the experience as it made me truly open my eyes to the emotion of Peoples Temple, the truth held in the words of everyone involved, from those who tragically lost their lives, to those who defected, and to those who barely escaped. The passion and memory of Peoples Temple will live with all of us forever, because we uncovered the truth, in all of its complexity.

(Abby Bradley can be reached at ahbradley@hotmail.co.uk.)