What Does The People’s Temple Do For Our Understanding of the Real Thing?

by Garrett Lambrev

I want to acknowledge at the outset that we are not discussing something fixed but a work in progress under reconstruction of sorts in Juneau, Alaska, as I write. What its eventual success or failure will be depends perhaps on decisions not yet made. On the other hand, a month and a half of performances by the Berkeley Rep, three of which I witnessed, gives me at least a strong sense of the parameters within which those responsible for the play are trying to make it work and the direction in which it seems likely to develop and, in so doing, to frame future discussion and even research.

As a defector/survivor who contributed to the story and is portrayed on stage – but also as a historian, with some experience in theatre – I want to see this production succeed in bringing to theatre-goers everywhere the sort of understanding which only art can manage that has nothing to do with the ability to prove or disprove a particular thesis as to what happened at Jonestown and why. It is therefore my sincere hope that the play’s co-creators will not think me another busybody, unnecessarily adding to their woes, when I offer publicly my own reflections on their progress thus far as it relates to a wider theme, which has to with the current state of our understanding: what we know or think we know about Peoples Temple and its fate. The ongoing and ultimate artistic freedom of the writers to do with the material what they will – an absolute necessity for creative work – carries with it, particularly in this case in which so many of the principals are still alive and so many important questions await answers, indisputable responsibility.

Before proceeding further, I want to pause and salute the indefatigable bravery of Leigh Fondakowski and her cohort of warriors. Their dedication to this theatrical pilgrimage simply awes me. I don’t know how they manage to face oblivion at Jonestown daily and nightly. Such a chivalric work of adventure must defy sanity at times and leave them feeling wrecked and hopeless – not to mention sleep-deprived. I can only applaud them for seeking what may prove impossible but is worth a fulsome effort: namely, nothing short of artistic redemption of the tragedy by the power of their collective imaginations, fused in such hard and painful labor, giving birth to what is certainly not finished yet.

So, what about the artistic truthfulness of this moving target, the play-in-progress? And how is that the same and different from historical truth, itself a synthesis of art and science? What deeper understanding can a ticket holder or future watcher on HBO or another network hope to derive from a good performance?

It almost goes without saying that my perspective and response is and will be significantly different from that of most theatre-goers who lack an organic connection to the PT experience, except for participation in a society still strangely traumatized by what happened that night in the jungle and who likely face a future every bit as grim as what Jim Jones repeatedly predicted. It will also be significantly different from that of too many other defectors and survivors I know, who will be satisfied with anything on stage that brings what they refer to as “healing,” often, I fear, at the expense of integrating into a dynamic picture what few of us who’ve been particularly traumatized want to see. And what too many of us survivors and defectors really don’t want to see or hear can be summed up in one or two words, Jim Jones. The man. The God man. The Devil man. The one being without whom Peoples Temple would never have existed or attracted any of us who survive to speak about it in stuttering tongues or to remain silent, without whom there would certainly be no play bearing the name of his creation. Real healing cannot come until we, the few survivors, those who represent us and the audience on the receiving end gain some real understanding of who this man was and why he did what he did. The excuse used by the playwrights for downgrading him to a subtropical storm, namely, that their work is not about Jim Jones but about those of us who comprised Peoples Temple only makes for schizophrenia and, in any case, begs the question.

And so, first the worst of the bad news, at which I have already strongly hinted:

All those who do not want to be confronted by the man behind the pulpit with his sleeves rolled up, the prophet turned cannibal, will be relieved, at least so far, that the actor playing Jim Jones, John McAdams, cast perhaps purposely against type, will threaten them no more than the Wizard of Oz did Dorothy. Though Jones’ lines in the script are strong and pregnant with possibilities, the execution is one and a half dimensional, delivered almost deadpan at times by an actor bereft of dynamism, a cardboard figure without animal magnetism or even simple grace, who fails to ignite the audience in any way whatsoever and will send most people home, sensing they’ve had an important experience but shaking their various heads, still quite unable to understand why so many high-minded people would make such an all-encompassing commitment to such a vain and pitiful creature, trying to hide behind dark glasses.

This lack of a convincing lead in the character of Jim Jones does not, fortunately, impede the audience from identifying members of PT as good people, committed to creating a more just society, but ultimately reveals us to be quite a stupid lot, definitely deluded, undoubtedly our own worst enemies, folk who should certainly have been restrained by whatever power might have been able to do so. In sum, what we are presented with is a nightmare scenario that could unintentionally rationalize the actions of The Concerned Relatives, and might provide cover even for operatives of the CIA or their opposites in the Soviet KGB, who seem to have been vying in the last days for control of those thousand bodies and souls.

Where is the man who reached out to touch, to look into the depths of the soul, to offer hope against what felt like insurmountable odds? Where is the prophetic voice of such a being who could never be domesticated? How can an audience ever hear Jim Jones and thereby comprehend his seductive attraction to those who stuck to him like glue if the actor who plays him, angular both in his looks and movements, awkward and prim before even his followers, swallows his for the most part excellent lines? Jim Jones could never have been mistaken for such a whitebread wimp.

As one survivor has observed, if only ten per cent of Jones’ miracles were real, his record is still stupendous and deserves to be represented by a vital being, someone who can approximate or at least suggest a force of nature. No such one emerges from this play so far, and largely as a result no real catharsis is possible. I fear therefore that members of most audiences will not be motivated to suspend their judgments long enough to identify with the plight of the characters held under a spell of which they get no idea and consequently will find themselves unable to agonize/empathize over the tragedy that plays itself out before their eyes. The end result at this point in the process, at least for me, is darkness without the painful epiphanic depth of light that real tragedy can bring to everyone leaving the theatre. Resolution might still be found by the use of Jones’ own recorded voice, a ghost from the past, speaking in part of a future that is only beginning to arrive.

Music that moves and carries an authenticity that words can only rise out of would help the production a lot. It provided the resonating groundwork of all Jones’ healings and assorted miracles – real and fabricated – and has everything to do with both artistic and historical truthfulness. While I understand the financial constraints that preclude the hiring of a full gospel choir, I can’t help wish such magical suggestiveness were there to lay down the hope-out-of-suffering that pervaded the gatherings where multitudes were fed in body and soul after the man who called Himself the reincarnation of Jesus, Buddha and Lenin entered the hall. It provided the platform on which he walked on earth as if in heaven to receive us before his wooden throne. At no point in any performance that I’ve witnessed was there the slightest danger that anyone in the audience would be moved enough to get up and dance as we did spontaneously, gifted by the spirit of that music, hypnotic in the atmosphere of rapture it established. As I write, Marion Williams is belting out “Just One Moment,” and I’m taken back to different times that perhaps no play can begin to reproduce, only at best distantly suggest as this one tries with a thus far unimpassioned minimalism of expression and fashionable distancing effect that worked for Brecht and others but which is out of place in a situation where the audience requires the building of an unshakeable emotional bridge.

I have many small-sized quibbles with the play as it stands (or has, one hopes, moved far beyond by now), most of which I will dispense with here.

I do have to interject that I deeply miss Marceline Jones, whose visage resembled busts of Nefertiti – not to mention photographs of Lenin’s mistress, Inessa Armand, and was reputed to be the reincarnation of Joan of Arc. Her absence from the play perplexes me. After all, she was not only Jim’s wife but our Mother, stern protectress of the least defended of God’s infants, to whom far too many of us looked for intercession as Jim moved entirely beyond our reach, entrenched in the drug-addicted bunker of his mind. I’m not the only survivor who believes that many stayed till the end only because she continued – at least in public – to stand by him, this man gone utterly mad, like the proverbial tree by the riverside that would never ever be moved from her commitment to justice and peace, irrevocably in her mind – it would seem – identified with this man who had become King of Cannibals and fed only on his own. If she would stand by him no matter what, they might too. An audience that has not experienced for one moment her care or correction cannot appreciate Jim Jones or know what Peoples Temple was entirely about. Both Catholic and Orthodox strands of family folkways enable me to recognize the role she played in our midst as earthly Mother of God, one not to be blind-sighted just because she was also his poor all-but-abandoned spouse.

It’s a compliment to what works in the play that it deserves – like Angels in America – three consecutive nights for the playwrights to do their subject anything approaching justice. Under prevailing circumstances, the artistic ensemble is forced to move breathlessly from one cameo to another, each adding to a momentum that can become dizzying and hard to for an audience to keep pace with. What concerns me most in the present scenario are the quintessential scenes which the playwrights will undoubtedly have to leave out for lack of funding or room at the various theatrical inns around this country.

The good news about the play, I write with relief, is every bit as significant as that which causes me concern.

The members of the prodigiously talented cast,who play broadly representative individuals – for the most part sympathetically – show how we made Peoples Temple what it was: by the power we gave our God in the form of deeds to property, paychecks, immeasurable psychic energies and commitment of most hours of each day and night. The audience is enabled to see what an extraordinary Aquarian family we comprised, a microcosm in many ways of these United States, at least in the 1970’s, a source of potentially transformative power by virtue or vice of our collective commitment to the vision of a radically changed, once again revolutionary America, whose egalitarian model many of us – and not just white middle class intellectuals like myself – thought we could provide to a world in need of salvation from multinational corporate greed. The playwrights use our testimonies economically to advance the action, sometimes cutting too quickly from one scene to another but almost always out of necessity to cover too much in too little time. It is not the fault of the writers and actors that there is relatively – though all the more precious – little from those whose lives were sacrificed and for whom we must continue to grieve.

The play movingly celebrates the power of altruism without romanticizing who we were and are as individuals. It does so in the context of our being very human beings, struggling with our desires, our fears, and our hopes, as do most others, including presumably most of those who comprise the various audiences – past, present and future – who will be engaged by this drama and who will in spite of themselves and the limitations of the production somehow manage to identify with our plights. In many cases, the portrayals are right on target; in a few, they are almost Greek-to-me. But historical verisimilitude is not the object here; emotional truth, the forte of art, is.

In spite of all my misgivings, I have some very real hopes for this play’s future ability to incorporate important historical truths and to raise questions about Peoples Temple that were not evident in the Berkeley Rep’s production, albeit in an artistic fashion that works dramatically. One is reason to believe – not amounting to faith – that the healings and revelations, often involving protection from pending disasters, to which I, for one, can personally attest, will not be ignored in future renditions that open in Minneapolis and thereafter. Another is a sincere hope that the writers will take a deep breath and offer at least a moment’s look or sidelong glance at the possible role of the CIA in the lead up to the Gotterdammerung. Where angels go easily, creators of what is after all only theatre may fear to tread, but I encourage the latter not to be intimidated by whatever might lurk in the dark and encourage you as readers to give them whatever support they might need to face the fire of the underworld(s).

I offer one final challenge to the artistic ensemble. Some of you have already devoted four years of your lives to this impossible project that never seems to end: please do Jim Jones, the demented prophet, the honor of placing him in the context of the world which he predicted and in which we now live, approaching some sort of global showdown/meltdown over control of rapidly diminishing resources in an increasingly toxic stew of wastes, that fundamentalists describe as Armageddon and secularists try to dismiss as we shake our heads in gross dismay, not knowing what to do with all those supposed idiots in the White House, plus the millions in the red states who don’t seem to know any better, not to mention Osama and his imitators, plotting in their network of caves and condos in limbo. Don’t be afraid of what you’ll unleash if you let all the stops go and force the audience to experience through you a Class 5 hurricane from which they won’t be able to escape the consequences when they exit the theatre.

Pursuit of the whole truth and nothing but the truth may seem quixotic, but it is so much more important than a sort of “healing” that can only survive in hermetically sealed environments and is the enemy of what true spiritual healing must be about. The role of historians and artists alike is to bring all of the darkness into the light. I congratulate you for what you have already accomplished: the vivid portrayal of as many perspectives as you possibly can on the small floor space in the time that you have. The contradictions which you let the characters present in juxtaposition darken and deepen as the play moves towards holocaust. You are wise to leave it to the members of the audience to make their own judgments as to what it was really all about and might mean now.

Nobody can know for sure where this play will go, whose eyes and hearts will be opened, whose lives will perhaps be irrevocably changed by questions this play, perhaps inadvertently, raises, which some who see it may not be able to dismiss. As a participant, a defector/survivor and one who remains strangely hopeful about the possibilities of human transformation, I can only pray that new investigators, perhaps inspired by what they’ve witnessed on stage, will follow their own lines of inquiry wherever the spirit and the facts lead.

Amen.

(Garrett Lambrev is a former member of Peoples Temple, a semi-retired librarian, a poet by nature and a student of history His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report is here. He can be reached at garrett1926@comcast.net.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on June 17th, 2018.
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