BERKELEY, CALIF. – The People’s Temple, a new docudrama at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, takes the lid off a powerful and anguishing history. In the opening scene, a white-gloved archivist delicately removes a choir robe from a storage box. So begins this compelling look at the Peoples Temple, a San Francisco-based congregation that spawned Jonestown, the communal settlement in Guyana. The community ended with the deaths of more than 900 residents, most by cyanide poisoning, on Nov. 18, 1978. Nearly 100 survived in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, or by fleeing in the hours and days before the calamity; hundreds more temple members remained in the United States.
Survivors have met at private gatherings and memorials in the years since. Now the public nature of the play means “we’re once more engaged with the rest of the world in a way we haven’t been since the immediate aftermath of the tragedy,” says Garry Lambrev, a former temple member portrayed on stage.
The renewed exposure provoked anxiety in some survivors who prepared to attend the world première of The People’s Temple (the apostrophe was added to the play’s title in part to distinguish it from the church) in mid-April. They were all too familiar with seeing themselves and their loved ones depicted – in news stories, documentaries, and a made-for-TV movie – as deranged cultists who mindlessly followed a charismatic madman, the Rev. Jim Jones, to their deaths.
Jones founded the Temple in Indiana in 1955, relocated to California in 1965, and later established headquarters in San Francisco. It was there that the temple, dedicated to principles of social justice, grew to 3,000 members. With its social-service programs, growing political influence, and a powerful community spirit, the temple seemed poised to fulfill its vision of creating a new world. Jonestown was conceived and built during the 1970s as a multiracial socialist paradise.
Along with the good came the bad, however. Lawsuits and press inquiry into practices within the temple – beatings, the separation of families, faked healings – prompted a swift exodus of 1,000 members to Guyana in 1977 and “78. Continued abuse and poor living conditions there led to an investigative visit, in November 1978, by Rep. Leo Ryan, concerned relatives, and media representatives. Several disaffected residents decided to leave with Ryan; as the delegation prepared to board a plane, they were ambushed and several were shot to death. Shortly afterward, Jones called residents to the central pavilion, where a vat of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid had been prepared. More than 900 residents, including hundreds of children, died by murder and suicide. Because of limited eyewitness accounts and spotty forensic evidence, the exact nature of the deaths is still contested.
“Why” is one of the great questions of that day. Shorthand accounts point to brainwashing, but the Berkeley production delves into the complicated choices and circumstances that temple members faced, and raises questions about coercion and free will.
The play is the result of three years of exhaustive research by writer-director Leigh Fondakowski in association with several other writers and an archivist. All the play’s dialogue is drawn verbatim from original interviews with dozens of survivors and others associated with the temple, as well as from news stories, letters, diaries, audio recordings, and other historical documents. They also sought to include more African-American voices than previous versions of the story; some 70 percent of those who lived and died in Jonestown were black.
“They really took on a lot,” says Janet Shular, a former member portrayed on stage. She recalls telling the writers, “I hope you know you’re tiptoeing around quicksand.” It was Ms. Shular’s first such interview about her experience at Peoples Temple. Several other survivors spoke publicly for the first time with the writers.
Eugene Smith, a former member who lost his wife and child in Jonestown, says he was nervous about relating his story. “You have to keep in mind, here it was 26 years ago, I had never spoken about it, in fact I was very ashamed of it, and felt like it wasn’t something that needed to be shared,” he says.
Many survivors interviewed came to trust the writing team for their persistence and sensitivity. Survivor Laura Johnston Kohl, who also figures in the play, says that Ms. Fondakowski “graciously listened to our stories and made this magnificent production, which none of us [survivors] could have done, because none of us could have pulled back from our specific points of view to present the whole picture in the way that she has.”
Instead of relating the usual sensationalistic story, the writers give voice to a variety of the members of Peoples Temple, their motivations for joining, their lives in the temple, and how the community arrived at its tragic end.
Deftly balancing the informational demands of documentary with the dramatic demands of theater, the play has drawn praise from critics. San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Rob Hurwitt wrote: “The unique power of theater to explore compelling stories as a communal experience is profoundly and movingly at work in The People’s Temple.”
Mr. Smith says, “It puts a human face on an incident that never had a human face.”
Audiences identify with characters whose actions they may have found incomprehensible. Herein lies a simple but profound achievement of the play, which is to take stock of the humanity of those involved. The losses at Jonestown can never be recouped. But for some survivors at least, the play may ease the stigma of dehumanization they and their loved ones have suffered.
(Paul VanDeCarr is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other articles in this edition include Doing Justice to Jonestown and (Un)Covering Jonestown, 25 Years Later. An article about his film is at “After Jonestown” Production Closes. Paul can be reached through this website.)