Taking an Audience to South America, 1978

This past January, I presented my Jonestown theatre piece to an audience for the first time. My collaborator Stephen Thompson and I have learned so much about Peoples Temple while creating this full-length musical, simply titled Jonestown. After years of research, writing, composing, and rewriting, we reached a point where we needed to see how our work-in-progress would fare before an audience at a staged reading. The experience gave us valuable perspective on what we’ve created and a deeper understand of why this story needs to be told in new ways.

In last year’s article for the jonestown report about our artistic process, I explained my instincts for telling this story as a stage musical – an idea that may seem peculiar. This material is the antithesis of “light entertainment.” But as playwrights, we hope that Jonestown can continue a tradition of serious, socially relevant musicals that began with Showboat (1927), and continued with landmark shows like West Side Story, Hair, Ragtime, and Caroline, Or Change. Musical theater as an art form originated in the United States, and I love how it evolves and expands to provide a window into more aspects of our culture.

For some people who only know the superficial details of Jonestown, the tragedy is an unfathomable event that is better kept separate from more “relevant” events in our nation’s history. For those who have learned more, the tragedy is not so disconnected from the American cultural and political climate of the 60s and 70s. For me personally, I discovered a clear connection between the actions of people in Jonestown and the actions of any group which is under siege or living in a state of war. This connection was my window into understanding the tragedy. As I studied the chain of events leading up to November 1978, I took note the factors that added to the siege mentality.

It’s been a great challenge to take the vast amount of information about Peoples Temple and shape it into a two-hour show. There are many potential missteps one could make. To focus our story, we had to have a clear goal on what we wanted to share with the audience. For Stephen and me, the ultimate goal is to provoke the audience to consider the tragedy’s relationship to our everyday lives.

Our musical takes place during the last three years of Peoples Temple and looks at the events from the members’ point of view. Jim Jones is a pivotal figure in the play, but our main character is a young African American woman who is introduced to Peoples Temple through her family. We knew that for many Temple members, music was a favorite part of their group expression, a vibrant way to share their passion, so much of the music is presented in the context of the church services.

In putting together the staged reading, I was fortunate to find an amazing group of actors who, along with our director and musical director, contributed much time, thought, and talent to this endeavor. The actors let us know when the character motivations weren’t clear, and we made last-minute changes to incorporate some of their great feedback. The director admirably did a ton of her own research to ensure that she could do justice to the memory of those who died. And our musical director brought the score to vibrant life with his gospel music expertise.

Some of our cast and crew knew very little about Jonestown at the beginning of rehearsals, and suddenly, I found myself in the sometimes uncomfortable position of being their primary resource about Jonestown. While fielding their questions, I became even more aware of the daunting responsibility to get it right.

After two weeks of rehearsal, we presented this reading to a New York audience in January of 2009. Stephen and I were thrilled that the room filled to capacity, even in the midst of a snowstorm. It seems that people were not put-off by the heaviness of subject matter at all. They genuinely wanted to see what we had to say.

I imagine that some people in our audience had never considered a connection between Peoples Temple and their own lives. Some people attended simply to be supportive. And I’m sure some came expecting to see a train wreck (“Why would they try to make a musical about Jonestown?”). And all these reactions are valid.

As I talked to people after the performance, I could tell that they were very willing to relate the events of Jonestown to their own lives. People also felt our use of music illuminated the story rather than sentimentalized it.

Based on the reading, I’ve learned that we definitely have more honing to do. But I can confidently say that this piece affected the audience and took them on a journey that is somewhat like the one I’ve taken through my years of researching and soul-searching. It feels more important than ever to continue this journey and bring our perspective of this story to more people. I’m so grateful for the encouragement and wisdom people have been passing on to us along the way. As people who are grappling with the legacy of Jonestown, ultimately we are all adding new chapters to the story.

(Carl Kelsch lives outside New York City. He can be reached at carlkelsch@hotmail.com.)