The People’s Temple:
The Audience As Participants

pixelLogically, most play reviews revolve around what happened on the stage. The acting, the lighting, the stage design, the flow of the dialogue as it develops into a plot, these are the elements that usually consume most of a reviewer’s ink. And of course this is important for people who are deciding whether to see a play. But this review is different: this has less to do with what the actors were doing than how the audience reacted to what was going on on the stage.

To be sure there was great acting. Lauren Klein made such seemingly effortless transitions as she flowed among her “characters” of Neva Sly, Claire Janaro, and Barbara Moore that one wasn’t sure it was the same actress. And Colman Domingo should star in a one-man play about Willie Brown, as he was able to play the former mayor of San Francisco with a flair and inflection that would have impressed Willie himself, no small feat to be sure. The writers did a fantastic job of weaving the interviews together to give a continuous story, certainly a much different – and much more difficult – process than free-writing a play. But what was happening on stage, no matter how well performed, truly paled in comparison with how the play was affecting the people in the audience, people both familiar with Peoples Temple and people who had no prior knowledge other than what has been presented by popular culture.

Before one of the earlier performances a number of people affiliated with the Temple – Jonestown survivors, Temple members who lived in California during the tragedy, apostates, family members, and friends – gathered for dinner at a local restaurant. Almost forty people attended, and it truly had the feel of a family reunion. It was the first time in many years that such a large group had come together outside of the memorial settings to reminisce about their years in the Temple. People talked about their new families, catching up on what they have been doing over the past 26 years, while others talked about the Temple and, of course, Jonestown. People remembered those who have passed since 1978. Obviously this was a difficult process for many people. But this night was different. People put years of differences (and anger) behind them to break bread, share memories and watch this play about an important and not so distant part of their lives.

Although I’m sure some people still have issues about the past – and this was not necessarily a love-fest – it was nonetheless an historic moment. Whenever participants in an historic event gather to reminisce, it is a continuation of that history. Eventually Peoples Temple and Jonestown will be recognized for what they are: significant events both in American religious history and in San Francisco history. Many survivors tend to downplay their stories or their experiences in the Temple, but each story is important as each provides a unique perspective on the events that led up to Jonestown. All of the perspectives are needed to help future generations understand what happened in Jonestown and – if possible – why it happened. But sometimes it is hard for participants in an historical event, especially one like Jonestown, to realize that their private lives might be of interest to others, and not only for the gory, negative reasons. Although there may be a feeling of voyeurism on the part of both the survivor and the researcher, it is inarguable that the very personal stories of the Temple members are what is needed to bring the picture of humanity to the Jonestown dead. It is only through the pain of telling and re-telling of these stories that we are able to go beyond the images of the bodies in death and get to the humanity of the people in life. The play was able to accomplish this with disarming ease.

I spent as much of the time watching the survivors as I did watching the play. Seeing when they laughed, and smiled. And seeing many wiping away a tear, at different times for different reasons, their own private thoughts touched by this play. The music. The pictures of those who died in Jonestown. An actor’s expertly delivered inflection. All elicited a response from the survivors that was moving and almost therapeutic itself. It was obvious that some level of healing was happening, and it was happening because of this play. What higher praise could a reviewer offer?

As important as this play was to survivors of Peoples Temple, it also affected those who knew little of the Temple beforehand. Indeed how the play affected the general audience is of more importance than the reaction of survivors. An entire generation has been born since Jonestown, and what they know about the event will be shaped by more recent events, like the production of this play. When the show was over, I stood outside the Berkeley Rep and asked people their thoughts on the play. I specifically sought out people who were not affiliated with the Temple in any way, many who just came to see whatever was playing. I asked them about why they thought people joined the group, and why people stayed in the Temple when things got bad. I wanted to see what kind of image these people had of Temple members. They responded universally that people joined because of the good works of the Temple and that they often stayed because they had family in the church, or because they supported the overall good works of the church. One man who remembered the news media of 1978 commented that he felt sympathy for the Temple members, whereas before he had felt only pity. After talking to a number of people who graciously gave me their time, I concluded that the play had impacted how people thought of those in Jonestown, realigning the thinking from mindless cult members, to human beings.

The play might have benefited from a more charismatic Jim Jones character, and might have given a higher profile to Marceline Jones, whose importance and influence in the Temple is often downplayed or dismissed. Some might have wanted more exploration of the conspiracy to take down Jim Jones, and others might have wanted no mention of the conspiracy at all. You will never please everyone. But the fact remains that this play has stimulated discussion about Peoples Temple and Jonestown in a new way, one that shows that the members were much like everyone else.

And it is this discussion which is, to me, more important than anything that happened on the stage. The play has been a catalyst for many people, especially outside of the Bay Area, to look at what happened 27 years ago, and explore what connections the situation from that period reflects what is happening in modern times. Are we really so different than those who went to Jonestown?

The play has also been a catalyst for others to come together and re-explore their personal history with the Temple. It is helping them to share their stories with others, thus preserving them for history and future interpretations.

Few plays impact the understanding of historical and cultural events. This play does that in a humanistic way, opening the doors for others to focus on this topic with a constructive, non-sensationalistic perspective. By doing so the play itself has become an historically significant event.

(Michael Bellefountaine was a frequent contributor to the jonestown report before his death in May 2007. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here.)