Exploring Peoples Temple through theater

I was only three years old in November of 1978 when news of the deaths in Jonestown alarmed the world. But it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I’d heard anything about Jonestown and Peoples Temple.

Late one night, I stumbled across the TV movie Guyana: Cult of the Damned, and I immediately wondered why I’d never heard of this major event in my American history class. On some level, I sensed it was a taboo topic, too messy to encapsulate in a paragraph of a history book, too disturbing to be mentioned on television except in the wee hours, buried among infomercials and slasher flicks.

During my studies at NYU’s Dramatic Writing Department, I was fully introduced to the power of storytelling, both in theater and film. Even a slapdash exploitation film like Cult of the Damned has the power to spark questions in a curious mind. And after college, as I gradually found my voice as a writer, I gained the courage to revisit the story that seized my interest a decade earlier.

I began my research in some of the most obvious places: Deborah Layton’s book, websites exploring conspiracy theories, lurid profiles of Jim Jones. And then I discovered this site.

I’m not sure why I first thought to dramatize this story as a musical play. Perhaps it was because writers and scholars before me had already explored Jonestown through nonfiction and documentary film. I was certainly inspired by the bravery of 90’s plays that tackled huge social issues, including Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive.

But a musical? Just mentioning the idea sounded crass, especially to people who are only familiar with the obvious example of the form: the Broadway musical comedy. That’s not what I envisioned in my head. My instinct was as simple as this: using music to help tell this story would allow me to focus on the ideals and passion of Temple members. After all, music was a large part of their common expression.

I immediately enlisted the help of a talented composer I knew from NYU. He was not very familiar with Jonestown beyond the most basic facts, and he wasn’t too sure he wanted to be involved. Then I shared with him what I had been learning in my research: the members of Peoples Temple were passionate about equality and freedom. And after he heard the stirring music from the Temple recording He’s Able, he was inspired to come on board.

There have been times when the project has overwhelmed us, times when I wonder if I can truly enrich the conversation about Jonestown. Soon after we did our first classroom workshop of the play in 2003, we were troubled to learn about the existence of another musical. But after seeing Jonestown: the Musical in New York in 2004, I realized that it’s so important for a wide range of artists to reflect on this chapter of our collective history.

Growing up in a post-Jonestown world, it’s not hard to see how the tragedy has affected my generation’s view of all things political. Some of us, myself included, are hesitant to show too much passion for any cause or leader or candidate. Jim Jones’ abuse of power has been held up as the ultimate example that organized action is not only futile, but possibly fatal.

I believe artists and historians have the power to challenge that legacy. I don’t expect to capture all the complexity of this subject in a two-hour show, but I do hope I can create some empathy through the unique intimacy of theater. In a couple of months, I will be presenting Jonestown in New York City as a work-in-progress. I am grateful to have the opportunity to share my perspective and I look forward to getting feedback and learning more.

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