The People’s Temple:
A Student’s Journey to Understanding

09d-06-downing“Before you abuse, criticize, and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.” These words of wisdom, sung by Elvis Presley, have stuck with me since I first heard them. From December 2007 to February 2008, we – the Yankton High School theatre club in Yankton, South Dakota – learned an incredibly valuable and unforgettable lesson of understanding and sympathy. We put on The People’s Temple, an incredibly well-written and poignant remembrance of the people involved in various ways with Jim Jones and his church’s history in California and Guyana. Along with the rest of the cast, crew, and costumers of the show, I personally learned an invaluable lesson: Never judge the reasoning for a person’s actions until one has heard every side of the story.

When I read the title of the show on the audition posters, I honestly had never heard the Jonestown story. Our director, Terry Winter, explained the story of Jim Jones and his quest for a socialist utopia, and I was enthralled. After hearing a rather in-depth description of the church from the early 1960s through the fateful day of the mass suicide, I still needed more. I went online and read as many articles as I could about the event. Little did I know what I would actually learn from the script, the show, and the chemistry of our cast and crew.

The script captivated me from the first page. I was, and still am, incredibly interested in the setup of the show. Our set was comprised only of archive shelves stocked with boxes of files and articles. Two archivists periodically state facts from various newspaper articles about the story which the public heard about Jonestown. They introduce each character put into the story, who set the overall tone of the show. The most wonderful part of the show was the individual perspectives of the Jonestown events. For example, Reverend John and Barbara Moore told their story from the perspective of two outsiders to Jones’ church, while their two daughters, Carolyn and Annie told their side of the story, which was from inside Jonestown. John and Barbara’s story came from interviews with the playwright; the story of Carolyn and Annie, who both died in Jonestown, came through the letters they wrote to their parents.

Other characters included Julie Smith, my role, now a detective novelist, but during the time a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. Ms. Smith was given a lead about Jones, who was running his church in Ukiah, California, and her story is also told through monologue. She had an interview with Jones, but when she saw her edited version in the paper, she was shocked how it was completely cut down to the bare essentials.

The only person who had no actual monologue was the role of Jim Jones. He was less of an actual character in the play and more of a contextual figure, his part consisting of sermons directed at the audience, which I also found dramatically effective.

Periodically throughout the show, the cast sang various songs to represent the mood of the people in Jonestown, which slowly went downhill as their time in Guyana was winding to a horrific end. We sang the songs in a spiritual style, representing the manner in which the Temple people sang their hymns. “This Little Light of Mine,” “The Battle of Jericho,” and “Amazing Grace” were a few of the spirituals in the show.

For the cast, acting out the monologues was a terribly difficult task. We felt a huge responsibility to do justice to the testimonies we were giving, because we were representing actual people. Because the script was meant to be a theatrical production, we also felt a contrasting need to make the show dramatically effective for our state competition. Through intense coaching by our director, we all felt confident and very proud of our show. We took every moment seriously, and it was the most emotional show any of us had performed.

After six weeks of draining, tiring, and long rehearsals, we were ready to perform the show in the South Dakota High School One Act Competition. Yankton High School has a tradition of having a school-wide viewing of the yearly one-act as a “final rehearsal” for the cast during school the day before we leave for the competition. As we took the stage, we all realized we were ready to perform our show, and our roles became who we were. We received a standing ovation from the school, and we were excited to have spread the story of Jonestown to our peers.

Our performance at the state competition went incredibly well. The final scene in our production proved our emotional investment in the show. Tim Carter’s actor gave his account of the mass suicide in Jonestown. The entire cast was crying, and we finally understood the heartbreak and horror of the final event. As we all slowly drank from our cups, hugged our loved ones, and lay down for the final time, the audience was completely silent and in shock. After the final, cold, unfeeling words from the archivist, “…owing to the lack of reliable and specific information about their own intent and the possibility of coercion by others, the manner of death in our opinion remains undetermined,” a soloist began to sing. To his ballad version of Presley’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” each member of the cast slowly arose from death, holding an individual picture of a person who was actually in Jonestown. We stood facing the audience, sobbing, unmoving, and then slowly drifted offstage. As the spotlight on the soloist slowly faded with the piano’s last chord, the audience was still. Immediately as the curtain closed, we heard an eruption of applause.

Our cast received all individual superior acting awards, and our show received a superior overall performance award. As much as we appreciated the honors, we were more proud knowing we had done the show, and the members of Jonestown, justice.

Hearing the stories of the various roles in The People’s Temple production, I learned not to judge a person’s actions until I understand all sides of the story. The events and people from Jonestown are the proof I needed to remember that lesson for the rest of my life.

(Maggie Downing now attends college at the University of South Dakota.)