Alchemy of Theater Turns Straw into Gold

by Cheryl Graeff

Ever since I was a little girl, I have been interested in the idea of alchemy. I have always believed in my heart that it was really possible, in a way, to turn straw into gold. A person could come from the hardest, the darkest circumstances, and still become an amazing person. This is one of the main reasons I went into the theater: storytelling is about transformation, about how one person or a mass of people can transform.

When the events in Guyana took place, I was only a little girl and had only a child’s understanding of what had happened. I understood only that a great many people had died, and that they had been led by a man with dark hair and sunglasses whom I had seen in newspapers and on television. I knew nothing of why this huge community had come together, and certainly could not grasp why they had chosen to die.

The general – and accurate – understanding of what happened in Peoples Temple is that there was great abuse. Members of the Temple hid from the awareness of this abuse. They overlooked the cruelty of Jim Jones and of his inner circle in their enormous desire to hold onto their dream. Each for their different reasons, the people who joined the Temple were vulnerable to being drawn in by Jim Jones. Many were estranged from their families, most were disenchanted with their lives, and all desired a change. Though I’m not aware of the specific diagnosis, few would argue the fact that Jim Jones was grandiose, paranoid, and at the end, delusional. The story of what happened in Jonestown was indisputably an enormous tragedy. This is the story that everyone knows, and is not likely every to be forgotten.

This great darkness is historic and massive, and it needs to be remembered and recounted. And it has been, and will continue to be.

However, the play The People’s Temple is not about this darkness, though it underlies each of the stories told. What drew me to this play was the part of the Temple story that most of the world has never heard. It is a story of spirit, community, humanity and heroism in spite of – between the lines of – this extraordinary tragedy. This theme is what compelled me and continues to move me. Light out of darkness.

When The People’s Temple was brought to American Theater Company to be read as a possible production for our 2008-09 season, I recall thinking that a play consisting mostly of monologues was problematic. I wondered how any audience in a television-oriented society would have the patience to listen to these long passages. However, once I began to read the play, I couldn’t put it down. I read it all in one sitting. I found everyone’s stories to be riveting and moving. I related hugely to the ambition of making the world a better place. The idea that the world could be changed through the belief, commitment, and hard work of a community connected to my own dream of alchemy, my own wish that something beautiful could come from such a dark and troubled time. There was no doubt in my mind that if I had been in San Francisco at the time, and had I been older, I might easily have joined Peoples Temple.

Since being cast in the show, and living – to the extent that it is possible – in the world of Peoples Temple for the past month, my awareness has grown of how hard Temple members worked for their cause: a cause higher than their own personal needs; a cause powerful enough to inspire enormous sacrifice. Their sacrifice is incredibly inspiring to me. In a selfish world, the story of a group of people striving for community, taking care of one another, and embracing personal discipline to get to that place is a story that needs to be heard.

One of the most powerful realizations for me during this process was the fact that the Peoples Temple movement and message is still getting out to the world. At the end of the play, the audience is left with the loss of these people. Gratefully though, because they’ve listened and heard the story, the voices of these people haven’t died. The message and the heart of their mission lives on.

To me, the play bears the themes of questioning leaders, the value and importance of community, and the feats that a group of people can accomplish when inspired. It is incredible to me what the members of Peoples Temple accomplished: They built Jonestown, giving older people a sense of security and community, a sense that they were responsible as a group to raise the youth, and the commitment to live in diversity. I feel both privileged and responsible as an actor in this play to help bring these themes and words of these extraordinary people to our audience.

At the end of our first preview last night, I felt hopeful. Even though the play seems like a tragedy on many levels, ultimately the message is absolutely the opposite. I stood there during the curtain call finding myself and my fellow actors applauding the audience as they applauded us. We applauded them because they had come to listen, and it seemed that they had heard the stories of each person portrayed in the play. That gives me hope, and affirms my belief that out of such sadness, beauty can arise, that maybe straw can be turned to gold after all.

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 25th, 2014.
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