An Evolving People’s Temple

For those of us who have been working with Leigh Fondakowski over the past seven years, the news that The People’s Temple would be presented on stage again after such a long hiatus – and in Chicago during the fall leading up to the thirtieth anniversary of the deaths in Jonestown – was wonderful.

I first saw the play in Berkeley at the Berkeley Rep, in the Spring of 2005. It presented a significant change from the way the media looked at Peoples Temple. Leigh had actually interviewed as many survivors and knowledgeable associates of Peoples Temple as she could find. She addressed the depth of our optimism when we joined and the pit of our despair when we were left behind, with our vision destroyed.

The play had changed since the last time I saw it, but that was to be expected. When Leigh took this project on, she seemed to take on our burdens as survivors, our own sense of responsibility to our friends and relatives who died in Jonestown. She understood what a loss it had been for us. She also understood many of us had never had a chance to open up and openly grieve for all the deaths, our friends as well as of our hopes and aspirations. She had to give our own words back in a way that others could hear and see, while being true to us. She listened and researched, and listened some more. With that in mind, how could anyone expect one production to be the same as a previous one? Our experiences, our insights, our own understanding of Peoples Temple aren’t static. How could hers be?

Act I introduces the members of Peoples Temple as idealistic people who gathered together to build a better world, a world of black and white, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, old and young, and even Christian and atheist. We had come to form a family by erasing all those artificial divisions found in our society was immediately apparent. Jim Jones had inspired us to break down our own prejudices and to cement ourselves into one thriving, fascinating and progressive community.

I felt that Act I opened like many other plays. As we were introduced to the characters that would be participating, it felt like a variation of Our Town. If the crowd had been the under forty or unaware of the events of November 18, 1988, it might seem deceptively harmless. For three of us survivors in the audience, along with those who lived through that time thirty years ago, or those who had done their research, there was a feeling of urgency and trepidation, an inaudible drum beat that started our march towards the inevitable. When there was silence in the theater, there was total silence. No one even took a breath, it seemed. And the march went on. Because, of course, we knew.

Then Leigh brought in some of the music from the Temple. Our music was created by our souls, sung by our most soulful and wounded members, and was magical. Deanna Wilkerson, scalded on her face and much of her body as a young child before she was given refuge in the Temple, had a voice so filled with anguish that no singer I’ve ever heard could reach the depth she touches. Song was an integral part of our everyday life and each service.

At the end of the first act, we were dry-eyed but tense.

In Act II, the action began to speed up. People in the cast were more enthusiastic and less passive. Politics and activism were superimposed over the religion that many brought with them to the Temple. The beat of inaudible drums began speeding up the tempo. It was Jim’s time, after the murders of Martin Luther King, Kennedy, Malcolm X, Medgar and others, and the war in Viet Nam, and so much more. He hadn’t created the disillusionment – but it carried him to the top.

The same characters we had met in the first act were no longer calmly speaking of a dream they had for a better life. They weren’t telling the funny experiences they’d had. Their voices were the tortured voices of those who had lost their vision, their families and their community. Nell Smart’s actor told about her horrific loss of her mother, uncle and four beautiful children. Vern cried out in anguish about losing his son. The tragedy that had struck so many, from Congressman Ryan to the youngest infant in Jonestown, was laid bare. We were all crying, the survivors in the audience, most of the rest of the audience, even the actors were having a rough time.

At the end of Act II, Leigh did what I love about her. She didn’t stop with the deaths. When other movies and “documentaries” tell about Peoples Temple, they seem to feel the need to end with that graphic picture with all the bodies around the pavilion. Leigh goes on with the story. It didn’t all end that day, or that week. Some of us had to survive that.

Leigh talks us through it. She pulled together the ends, showed the individual treasures we had lost – all those beautiful worker bees who just wanted a better life for everyone, not just for themselves. She had let us get to know the people and let us grieve for them as an entire audience. Everyone was pulled in and everyone felt the tragedy of the deaths of these wonderful people and the truly visionary community we had built in the middle of the rainforest. For me, that was the true genius of the play.

I was struck with the masterful way the casting was done. It was both intuitive and delightful. Leigh and the American Theater Company found actors who truly characterized the individuals they portrayed, people who obviously had a personal and emotional connection with the message and the individuals.

Just as Peoples Temple brought out the best in many of us, the casting of The People’s Temple brought out actors who were made even better by their understanding of the parts they were playing. It wasn’t just “good acting.” It wasn’t that the cast brought themselves into the roles, but that they really became the wonderful and enthusiastic people – they took on their essences. It was powerful to watch.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)