The Portrayal of a Temple Member on Stage

by Kelli Simpkins

I remember when Leigh Fondakowski was commissioned to write a play about Peoples Temple. We had just completed the final run of The Laramie Project, a play about the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard and the aftermath of his murder on a town in Wyoming. When I began hearing about the interviews with Jonestown survivors and the photographs, letters, journals and documents that would become the framework of the future production, I saw an opportunity to be involved in the collaboration of a play about another town: Jonestown. Like The Laramie Project, this new play would be ensemble driven and collaboratively created, using verbatim texts and found documents. My work on the earlier play made me think I had an understanding of a tragic event that illustrates the horror, senselessness and impact of death. As it turned out, The Laramie Project did little to prepare me for the scale of The People’s Temple. Perhaps nothing could have.

When Leigh asked me to begin working as an actor and subsequently as a dramaturg on The People’s Temple, my feelings were complicated: I felt grateful for challenging work of this caliber, grateful to finally learn about the political and social machinations of such a significantly horrific moment in history and the people who were part of it; but I also felt incredibly ignorant, judgmental and naïve. And of course, there was the requisite fear: fear that I wouldn’t understand and wouldn’t be able to do it; and honestly, fear of the karmic implications.

I was seven years old when the Jonestown mass murder/suicide occurred. All I remember of that moment in history were the aerial photographs of the mass of faceless, nameless bodies face down and the talk of a crazed leader and his equally crazy followers drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. There was talk of a religious cult and why people do these things in the name of God, even a false God. But I understood none of it. I was too young to comprehend the vastness and magnitude of this kind of loss, too distanced even as I matured to ask any questions or to realize that all of these people had families and lives, desires, struggles and yearnings, that they were human beings, even. Even when I came into the first workshop for this play, I still knew nothing more than crazy leader, crazy people and Kool-Aid. Four years later I will not feign anything other than a pedestrian understanding of the over-arching question “Why?” but I certainly know more of the facts. I also have become acquainted with several of the people who died in Guyana and several who survived. The play is their story, both the living and the dead and my story is about one of the dead, Annie Elizabeth Moore.

In addition to my numerous fears going into this work, new ones were acquired as the work evolved. One of the most daunting was the fear of portraying someone who had died in Jonestown. Such a paradox to begin looking at these “individual” faces, faces with families and ideals, hopes and dreams. Mass death is far easier to digest if the people who died seem impersonal, not real. Ours was a task of “bringing to life” finally, of dignifying those who have not possessed dignity in the world’s eyes since November 18, 1978. I was entirely grateful to be a part of that process but increasingly affected by its depth and weight.

I have spent the past eight years working in documentary style, journalistic theatre. I have been privileged and ultimately changed by every single “real” person I have played. I have listened to tape recordings of the interviews to hear their voices, watched countless hours of video interviews and footage of them, spent human to human time with them, asking questions and getting to know them. Truthfully I have watched and listened, watched the way they breathe (in their chests or bellies; mouth or nose; do they hold their breath, sigh often, etc); listened to the way they speak, intonations, catchphrases repeated over and over; do their eyes look up to the ceiling or down when they are thinking or remembering; how do they hold themselves, what are their postures, where are their centers of gravity; do they speak with their hands, gesturing a lot, touch their faces or mouths. So many physical traits and externalized emotional states to witness, to inform my performance. None of this possible with Annie. I had photographs to view, letters to comb over, journals to peruse, but no person to observe.

Annie Moore

From the initial workshop one thing was clear in terms of casting: I was to play Annie Moore. The first thing I remember about Annie was a photograph. It was a photocopy of a picture of her in a nurse’s uniform on graduation day. She was standing with an older woman – her mother, I soon learned – and they were outside. She was standing a little hunched, her hands behind her back, a wry smile on her face. She actually looked kind of like me, tall, slender, youthful (if I dare). From that first moment I wondered who she was, why she had joined this weird group and why she stayed and ultimately lost her life as a result of that loyalty. There was much to learn, but there was only the hint of that in the first moment between me and Annie. She was the first human I connected to in the beginning of this work and in many ways, the one who holds the most mystery of all the characters I play.

The photographs played a huge role in my performance, helped to inform my physicality, posture, facial expressions and general aura. I studied all the photos of her I could. I eventually saw pictures of her as a baby and little girl and many pictures of her with her family of origin and with her chosen family, both in California and in Jonestown. She smiled often and seemed whimsical and goofy, personable and easy-going, sometimes melancholy and distant. Especially in some of the pictures in Guyana, where that particular youthfulness seemed lacking, I wondered how disappointed she might have been by idealism gone bad?

Her letters – to her mother and father, to her sister Becky, to Jim Jones or “Father” – were accessible from the first workshop, and I spent hours reading them. I began and continued to create theatrical moments of these letters and tried to ensure that Annie’s voice was heard as part of the play. The journey from idealistic young woman bent on saving the world to paranoid, loyal nurse feeding Jim his meds, supposedly assisting in the preparation and administering of cyanide that final day was shocking, to say the least. I will never know what role she played on November 18th or why she was one of two people (the other was Jim Jones) to have a gunshot wound, but the dichotomy from her beginning in PT to that final moment is staggering. It is difficult at best to match some of the last letters with the sweet face I saw for the first time, a face filled with hope, desperate to make a difference in this world.

I continued to study and read Annie’s letters, and when we did another workshop in San Francisco, I had the privilege of seeing the actual letters and photos at the California Historical Society. This profoundly affected me. There is a dynamic difference between holding a copy of a letter and the “white-gloved fragility” of handling the actual, real letter; seeing the real photographs; handling these objects, that were of the people. So precious are these remains, these tangible memories. I cannot articulate the sensation – sort of creepy, sort of delightful, but most of all, a connectedness. I wondered if she was watching me somehow, somewhere, and if she would approve of me portraying her. These thoughts of the dead continued to shadow me and I cannot say that I felt at all times comfortable with the sensations inherent in this kind of work. In many ways, I felt I had taken a little of Annie into myself.

One of the most dramatic moments for me was discovering her death report, reading the autopsy and most specifically the examination of clothing and personal effects. It was a much grander continuation of making the unreal, real; personalizing what, to the greater public, has never felt personal. Reading about her “tan pants with a key ring and keys, white panties, white socks, blue tennis shoes with ‘Annie Moore’ on them,” I imagined her putting these things on that morning and wondered if she knew that she might be found dead in them later? Every time I put on her costume – khaki pants, white shirt, blue Keds, white socks – I am making her real, making her essence real. I have a responsibility to portray as accurately as I can the dignity of her experience, because a life – her life – has merit, no matter what the consequences were. It is quite an emotional task for me. Unlike the other characters I play, she is the only one who is costumed similarly to how she was found.

Annie Moore is first introduced in the play by a quartet of sorts: a scene, an interview in the present with her parents, John and Barbara, talking about and thus bringing to life, first the eldest daughter, Carolyn and finally Annie, both of whom died in Jonestown. Barbara pulls one letter from a box of letters from her children. In it, young Annie explains why she is joining Peoples Temple. She describes what drew her in: “their church is socialist in the real sense, the kind of society Jesus was talking about.” She speaks of the interracial aspect – which would be a huge selling point for me – and even alludes to the fact that her parents think it’s a real weirdo church and that she herself admits that it’s pretty weird and that Becky, her sister, to whom the letter is written will “probably think that I am brainwashed and stuff.” She actually acknowledges others potential fears from the start. There is talk of the healing powers of Jim Jones, talk which continues in other letters: miraculous cancer healings, legs growing, blindness cured. I found this level of blind faith and trust that she exuded from the first moment ridiculous, idiotic and naïve. Even if I had been seduced by the social and political aspects, the recovery and rehabilitation of the lawless and the integration of the church family, I would have fled the moment a cancer was pulled out of a person and shown to the congregation. Why did she stay? Why did she believe this crazy stuff and not question that level of madness?

One of the difficulties in doing this work was trying to let go of my judgments. In order to portray a character, I must embrace them and attempt non-judgment but I frankly had many judgments of Annie. I judged most harshly those adults who had no voice to defend themselves, those who died fiercely tied to their loyalties and beliefs of Jones and the community, those who didn’t have 25 years of reflection and hindsight to diminish their fervor and grapple with their losses. But this is a play of unanswerable questions, and I had many. No one – not even they – could explain to me why they stayed, in spite of the overwhelming evidence and sound reasons for departure from Jonestown.

In one of the final lines in that first letter to her sister Becky, Annie summons a vulnerability that cripples me: “I hope you won’t be angry at me and I hope that you won’t think that I don’t love you. I hope you will still like me. Love Annie.” It is an edit of the letter, but it breaks my heart to say these lines. Annie and I were raised in very different moments in history and in very different blood families, but my identification with her abounds in lines like these and in several of her letters. The themes are consistent: her need for love and approval; her devotion to goodness, her fight for truth and justice for all people “every color, every age, every income group.”

When we were doing the play in Berkeley, Becky Moore gave me a copy of her book The Jonestown Letters for further insight into Annie and the Moore family. It has been an invaluable resource in my evolution with this character and the play in general. Becky writes that Annie’s “commitment to social justice came from a spiritual rather than political viewpoint,” and I relate to that so much. Both of Becky’s sisters were in the Temple hierarchy, and both of whom perished. Annie was certainly the lesser power than Carolyn but no less devoted. Just devoted in a more heart-centered way, it seems to me. I have asked others about her and their words always seem on track. Annie was kind, well-liked, not pretentious, artistic, deeply loyal, funny, and self-deprecating. She loved the jungle, loved the cause, loved Jim. She lived in her sister’s shadow. I imagine that she and I would have gotten on very well, as she is the most similar to me of all the characters I play. I know she loved kids and was obsessed with marginalized humans, those tossed to the periphery; I know she loved music, played guitar and was quite an artist; I know she had a good sense of humor; that she felt she couldn’t change the world on her own, no matter how badly she wanted to; that she thought she found a group that was sincerely breaking down barriers and making a tangible difference in the lives of its members; I know she valued equality, honesty and selflessness; I know that she considered herself lesbian ( in one of her letters to Jim). So many similarities and yet how could she follow Jim Jones and sit still, watching as people were tortured, robbed, humiliated, lied to, threatened? As Barbara wrote in one of her letters “why can’t they [Annie and Carolyn] sift out, weigh and accept or reject some of the concepts and carry on without this kind of Jehovah’s Witness-type zeal.” There must have been moments of anguish for Annie – especially those last days in Jonestown – being the nurse, witnessing her hero Jim Jones recede into in a drug-induced stupor, completely addicted to substances she helped to administer, falling prey to paranoia and murder. Certainly this was not the idealism for which she yearned? Did the ends truly justify the means to her? Or was there a vast chasm of loneliness and skepticism in her heart?

I cannot answer any of these, but I have and continue to grapple with them, to grapple with Annie’s anger, her paranoia, her conspiracy theories and her absolute defense of Jim and Jonestown at all costs. I grapple with the last letter Annie left on the last day in Jonestown in which she writes – and as I say in my portrayal of her – “We died because you would not let us live in peace.”

And yes, I imagine her writing it. In my heart, I would love to believe that she was capable at that point of discernment, of seeing through the madness and all the suffering, that her armor had been dented and that she saw the impossibility of the true ideals she clung to from the start. But I don’t know the truth for her. I cannot meet her for coffee or listen to an interview and get her feelings in hindsight. I have photographs and letters and her family’s letters to her and each other, and I have testimony from all the survivors, both from people who loved it in the Temple and to this day consider it the best time in their lives, and also those who wanted out, who finally got out or who always saw the smoke and mirrors.

I perform what I know, and what I know are the images, the handwriting, the humor and love and heart of this woman and also the tragic devotion and blind faith, devotion that cost her and the family she loved. Annie and all of the devoted who stayed are gone. Their story became and was the story, the only story.

Part of my struggle is playing Annie is her seeming inability to question what was surrounding her. I take my direction from Sharon Salzberg, who writes in her beautiful book Faith: “When we fail to question what we are placing our faith in during that first firing of attraction, bright faith becomes blind faith. We stop thinking, we surrender without discernment, we are willing to be deluded as long as we can stay connected to the person or group that stirs our hearts and validates our lives. When we place our faith entirely in others, rather than remembering the need for faith in our own understanding, we end up caught in the shadow side of surrender and devotion. We will be passive and dependent, leaving us afraid to question, afraid of being unable to see clearly for ourselves, afraid of being left out, of being challenging. We may subvert reason, intelligence and whatever else we have in order to keep someone as the repository of our trust. For faith to be balanced it is vital that we examine closely the recipient of our heart, because delivered with our heart is our life’s energy.”

I am privileged to play this complicated woman; grateful to have been part of an exploration of what it means to give yourself fully to a cause; to re-examine the Temple and what it has to teach us politically, socially, personally and spiritually and how relevant these issues are to this day; but mostly I am grateful to give life to the complexities of this story, to give faces and names and words to those people who survived and those who lost their lives on November 18, 1978, the thousands of men, women and children – all their families – who have been pushed to the margins, laughed at, joked about. I am forever changed by their courage and their stories, heartened by their ability to continue moving forward by making peace with such a complex past; I have learned so much from the survivors and those who lost their lives.

Anne Elizabeth Moore was one of them. I try to honor her essence with integrity and honesty each time I put on the tan pants, white shirt, white socks and blue tennis shoes and embark on the difficult three-hour stage journey called The People’s Temple. Annie chose to stay connected to the group and to the man who stirred her heart and validated her life, and I perform her story as it has been laid out before me.

John Moore, Annie’s father, said in one of our interviews with him, “Well, you have a choice to make. How are you going to respond? It’s not just: why did this happen? But what will you do about what’s happened? So you know, out of piety, however you want to describe that, I would like to work with God to bring whatever good I can out of this. And that’s what Barbara and I and Becky and Mac have done. So that– the resurrection is that– that tragedy is still there but new life and new hope can arise.” It is my hope that in portraying Annie Moore, in fact, in viewing the tapestry of all the various characters, the audience will see members of Peoples Temple as themselves: richly varied, complex, frightened, joyful, hopeful, dependent human beings who contributed greatly to the cause in which they believed and ultimately who were not careful with their hearts and its recipient.

(Kelli Simpkins can be reached at kas7@earthlink.net.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 7th, 2014.
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