People’s Temple Reveals Jonestown’s Diversity

As I write this, I find myself and the rest of the cast of this production of The People’s Temple smack dab in the middle of the most stressful part of the process. We are slogging away through tech week and dress rehearsals, that happy time when weeks’ worth of work learning lines, blocking, and crafting a performance collide head on with all the other production elements like lights, sound, video, and costumes. Suddenly what seemed like a situation well in hand reveals itself to be a knotted mess of loose ends and frustrations, and that little voice in your head that hates you will not shut up and gets noticeably louder just as you’re trying to sleep after rehearsal. Maybe I should’ve gone to law school? Naw, the world doesn’t need another lawyer. I have to believe the talent and dedication of Leigh Fondakowski and the cast as well as the rest of the production staff at the American Theater Company here in Chicago will overcome.

Those hurdles notwithstanding, this has been a very challenging project from the outset. Usually an actor works to distill a performance to its essence, but this is just too complex. I play the “Tim Carter” character on stage and had the privilege of speaking to the real Tim Carter as part of my research for the show. He said something very profound: take a population of 1000 people anywhere in America, and you’ll find broad diversity among its people. The Temple was no different. That’s so true. There isn’t a single “Jonestown plot line” here. Embodying the multiple points of view and experiences of reality has been fascinating, and I trust that our work in that respect will help to dispel the popular notion that Peoples Temple was a monolith or that Jonestown can be reduced to an event.

As we head for Opening Night, I have to say I have felt a much different sense of responsibility to this script. Working on a project like this makes one realize that just “doing good” isn’t enough. As actors lucky enough to work on something this piercing, we’ve realized that our first responsibility is to honor and respect the experience of the survivor community. Those who have contributed to this text have done much more than just told their story, they’ve opened their hearts and shared all that it means to be a survivor. It’s humbling. And to one degree or another I’ve felt that humility every time I’ve opened the script. I hope I can bring that to the stage.