A remarkable and long overdue slice of history occurred with the premiere of the new play The People’s Temple last April. For the very first time, the “people” of Peoples Temple are being portrayed with diversity, depth, and humanity. The play leaves facile and demeaning stereotypes at the door, allowing the audience members to decide for themselves the character attributes of those portrayed. Even those who considered themselves “experts” on Peoples Temple left the play admitting new knowledge and a deeper understanding, where they thought none existed. Almost all acknowledged that the story was “much more human” than they had ever considered.
On a strictly personal level – and as someone who is portrayed on the stage – I found that watching the play and reconnecting with those I still consider “family” to be incredibly cathartic. I experienced joy, sorrow, and to a certain extent, resolution. I left the theatre feeling that, after 27 years, the people of Jonestown finally have a voice. The fallacy of “mass suicide” is confronted head-on. Many stories are being heard for the first time. And the joy that existed in PT, as well as the contradictions and the pain, is made tangible.
I want to extend my admiration and heartfelt appreciation to Leigh Fondakowski and Greg Pierotti, who visited my home several times over the years. They became dear friends through their honesty, openness, compassion, kindness, and empathy. They are genuinely concerned with getting it right, a sentiment expressed but not realized by so many interviewers over the years.
Leigh, Greg, and all who worked so hard in bringing this story to the stage (Margo Hall, Steve Wangh, David Dower, Denice Stephenson, and the entire cast and crew) deserve enormous praise for what they’ve accomplished. It is a watershed in the telling of the Peoples Temple story.
(Tim Carter lived in Jonestown and escaped on the final day. His complete collection of stories for the jonestown report may be found here.)