Spending years with the story of Peoples Temple

When I first set out to present the story of Jonestown as a stage play, I began a decade-long journey into this complex chapter of American history. One of my main goals during research was to understand the mindset of Peoples Temple members so that I could write about their plight in an illuminating way. The scope of the final tragedy casts such a heavy shadow that the process has been daunting at times. But my exploration of Jonestown has also taught me to constantly look beyond the surface of things.

In the year 2000, I brought my germ of an idea – creating a stage musical about Jonestown – to composer Stephen Thompson. We were college friends who admired each other’s unique sensibilities. He was familiar only with the basics of Jonestown at the time, and he balked at the idea. But after Stephen heard He’s Able, the album recorded by Peoples Temple choir, he began to understand my approach. By integrating music into the story, we could portray the idealism of Temple members in a relatable way.

The biggest reward so far has been presenting the show to an audience. I mounted a staged reading of the show, titled Jonestown, in early 2009. Many people arrived at the reading feeling dubious about the idea of a musical adaptation. But after leaving that theater, I don’t think anyone questioned our choice of format. Stephen and I had done so much work to keep our dramatization honest and illuminating.

Still, certain aspects have been so hard to capture in a two-hour dramatic format. For example, it’s been difficult to portray the charisma of Jim Jones and what made him so compelling. Perhaps my imagination is limited because I’ve never personally encountered a leader, priest, or minister with the persuasiveness that he seemingly possessed.

But a few years ago, I did experience the powerful influence of a group of political activists. After stopping at a table where a man was asking for donations to help impeach then-Vice President Cheney, I put my name on a mailing list for further information and even made a small contribution. Soon, I got a call from someone on the Lyndon LaRouche Political Action Committee, inviting me to attend their local meetings. I decided to read more about the group and realized I didn’t agree with their political positions. I also read accounts that accused the group of using aggressive tactics to build and maintain membership. This phone call was the first of several. Yes, the members who called me were aggressive, but they seemed genuinely passionate about their beliefs. I had a very hard time cutting the conversations short and ended up listening to minutes of their rhetoric each time before politely ending the call.

As the calls got more frequent, I realized why I had a hard time hanging up: I had a sense of guilt about my lack of involvement in politics. I do vote, but I often avoid politics-related news, any sort of action or activism, even about issues that are important to me. The LaRouche PAC members seemed to pick up on my vulnerability in this area. I wanted to be able to refute their rants, but I felt too uninformed to stand my ground. It all culminated in a phone call where a LaRouche PAC member tried to get me on a three-way conversation with two of her colleagues, overpowering my already-feeble attempts to explain why I didn’t agree with them. Why did I feel like I owed them an explanation? Why not just hang up?

The caller confrontationally asked me what I was doing to help my country. And the answer rolled off of my tongue in a way that even surprised me: “I write,” I replied. “I’m a playwright and I try to address issues in my work.” This didn’t shut her up, but suddenly I felt comfortable telling her to never call me again.

In researching Jonestown, I often read about how Temple members were aggressive about recruiting. This fact is often relayed with a sinister implication that Jim Jones had a supernatural ability to shape and bend the will of others. But my experience with the LaRouche PAC members encouraged me again to look beneath the surface.

Both the activists and I had something in common: a sense of responsibility. It’s not accurate to simply label it “guilt.” Most of us find ways to exercise some of that responsibility, usually by being supportive to those in our circle of family and friends. Some get involved with their church, or with soup kitchens or mentoring programs that allow contact with less advantaged people. Just as often, though, we see examples of people who admirably go above and beyond to the help lives of others: Peace Corps volunteers, fire fighters, charity organizers, people in military service. It’s hard not to feel ineffectual in comparison. So many of us struggle to find a level of involvement that fulfills us.

From my study of Peoples Temple, I believe that many members had an acute sense of responsibility to the world around them. Their aggressiveness came not merely at the behest of Jim Jones, but from a place of personal conviction. This inclination was so strong that some members took questionable risks. Some of the risks ended up having a positive impact on their local communities before they moved to Jonestown. But some of their choices helped set precedents that allowed Jim Jones to push people beyond their better instincts. Their desire make a positive impact, though, is a basic human quality, a quality that has allowed our culture to make great progress. In my writing process, I began to focus more on that sense of responsibility. As a result, I discovered the universality of their story.

My process of trying to understand the facts, accounts, images and human stories related to Peoples Temple has enriched my life. It is a part of history that is still causing great sadness for those who lived through the events. But I’m grateful that it has not been forgotten or left unexplored. It’s a story that holds potential meaning for all of us.

(Carl Kelsch lives right outside NYC and is currently looking for a place to mount the first full-production of Jonestown. He can be reached here.)