(ed. note: Jonestown: The Musical, a self-described “dark musical comedy”, premiered as part of the New York International Fringe Festival and ran for a week in late August at the Michael Schimmel Center For The Arts at Pace University in New York.)
As soon as I walked into the theater, I knew I needed to take off my “scholar hat” and pretend I knew nothing about Peoples Temple. Otherwise, I would become what theatergoers know as a “geek”: that guy who sits right next to you, loudly denouncing every continuity problem and historical inaccuracy he can find. Instead, I told myself to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
The theater darkened and the spotlight pinpointed young Samuel Foreman, Jim Jones’ right-hand man, holding a cup of ominous liquid and surrounded by bodies. As he lamented his situation – having become the only survivor of Jonestown – the scene shifted and we found ourselves transported back to the early days, to the origins of Peoples Temple.
For sheer entertainment value, Jonestown: The Musical didn’t disappoint. Marla Schaffel’s portrayal of Marceline Jones was strictly from Broadway, appropriately dramatic throughout her transformation from a prissy overworked oven-mitt type to a brassy empowered would-be defector. My personal favorite was Robert Creighton, a tap-dancing vaudevillian Leo Ryan who went through a similar transformation, from spineless self-serving politician interested only in pleasing his constituency, to an action-oriented investigator bent on saving the weary citizens of Jonestown. Mark Cavenaugh played Samuel Foreman, and did well despite being given little to work with as a character. He was supposed to be the protagonist – even though there was no one in Jonestown by that name – but he was consistently outshone by Leo, Marcie, and Jim, and disappeared into the woodwork during the middle section of the play. While failing to really capture the unique essence of Jim Jones, J. Mark McVey projected the booming voice and meaty charisma of a classic Pentecostal preacher without a hitch. Larry Lee’s music was wonderfully written, and Brian Silliman’s writing was often witty and filled with double meanings, good jokes, and delicious ironies.
The play’s attempt to convey any kind of message, though, was a different story. And the historical accuracy… well, forget about it. Silliman and Lee, who co-wrote the lyrics, couldn’t decide which path to take: a frequently clever study of human nature and accountability; or a just-plain-silly satire of cults in general. At one point, Ryan exclaimed, “At least, back in America, we aren’t bossed around and told what to do by self-serving leaders,” then followed up with an embarrassed double-take as he realized the irony. This and other cleverly woven parallels were common themes throughout the story.
But situations also took deadly serious turns as Jim turned from a simple con artist into a crazed devil, as Marcie saw her role as “second fiddle” for what it truly was, and as Sam watched his carefully crafted utopia crash and burn. As the story reached its arguably most serious moment, though, it seemed clear that Silliman was indeed a silly man. In a scene entitled “Funky Kool-Aid”, Jonestown residents gulped down their poison and danced to a disco beat, complete with the Kool-Aid Man himself busting through the wall and exclaiming “OH YEAH!” (And here, my geek urge really kicked in, as I restrained myself from jumping up and shouting: “It was Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid!”) It’s not that it was tasteless; it just came out of left field.
The thing that Silliman and Lee did seem to agree upon was to throw whatever little research they had done into the toilet. I’m all for artistic license, but a few items were hard to swallow. The real-life Jim Jones and the leadership of Peoples Temple were socialists, NOT Bible-thumpers, a common misconception. To my knowledge, the Peoples Temple did NOT sell monkeys to raise money for Jonestown (though Jones ran a small monkey-raising business as a younger man). And Marcie Jones certainly did NOT betray Jim and attempt to flee the temple, only to be captured and executed by Jim himself. Of course, the real story of Peoples Temple is formidable, with a complex and intriguing history during the Jonestown heyday, certainly impossible to squeeze into a mere two hours. In a way, I can’t blame the writers for taking the easy way out.
Yet, Jonestown: The Musical was about blame. By the final scene, we had come full circle, with Samuel Foreman alone again with cup in hand. His solitude didn’t last long, though, as he was suddenly confronted by the entire ensemble, back from the dead and ready to put him on trial, with Jim Jones playing prosecuting attorney. One by one, each dearly departed Jonestown resident testified against Samuel, demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that he was solely responsible for the whole mess. The crime: the things he didn’t do to prevent the downward spiral. The verdict: guilty. And understanding his inevitable duty, he finally drank the contents of his cup. The problem with this logic, of course, is this: if Sam Foreman’s inactivity made him personally responsible, then everyone else was equally responsible for the same reason. And – try to keep up here – if everyone was responsible, the burden of personal accountability was effectively lifted, and consequently, nobody was responsible. Whew!
Indeed, the very character of “Samuel Foreman” himself was a composite, which demonstrates the same problem. He could have been a combination of several people in Jonestown – Tim Carter, Jim McElvane, Richard Tropp, Mike Prokes, even Larry Layton – but just as that means he is Jonestown’s Everyman, it also means he is no one. In essence, he becomes a stand-in figure, a cardboard cutout to make the points the writers wanted to make without actually having to research their validity.
At the end of it all, I felt stupid for having brought my “scholar hat” in the first place.Jonestown: The Musical was a great Saturday afternoon activity. But let the buyer beware: “All events and characters featured are fictitious and are in no way meant to resemble any person or thing, living or dead.”
(Norman Scott is an artist, audio engineer, and inventor living in Queens, NY. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).