The Difficult Act of Surviving:
Notes on The People’s Temple

Prospect Park is a big public park in Brooklyn, not quite as large as Central Park, but just about. The park is a gathering place for people in the city, a strong center of community for events and sports and outdoor activities of all kinds. Living close to Prospect Park is one of the saving graces of the city for me. It’s where I go for a run, which is what I do to clear my head and get my swirling thoughts in order. In the past, these runs have helped me get over hurdles in writing The People’s Temple. This time, I ran so I could write this article.

It was a beautiful fall sunny Sunday morning, and as I jogged up the street toward the park, I heard dance music blaring in the distance. As I rounded the corner that led to the entrance of the park, I began to see crowds. There was a gathering storm of people – mostly women – all ages and races and shapes and sizes, some with their friends, some with their families, some with their dogs. From the sea of pink t-shirts and balloons and bold signage, I knew this was the “Making Strides” event against breast cancer. I suddenly heard and felt the music differently – it was a celebration, yes, but a serious one. There was momentum in the air, anticipation, solidarity, purpose. I kept running. I ran under a large arch of balloons in all shades of pink that marked the starting line of the event. The DJ was playing Gloria Gaynor’s, “I Will Survive.” I looked at the sea of women around me. I was suddenly struck by the fact that many of these women were survivors themselves, or they had lost a loved one or someone dear to them to breast cancer. And they were indistinguishable from the hundreds of others who weren’t directly affected by breast cancer, but who stood with them in solidarity because they cared.

I felt tears building up in my eyes. And as I ran in the park, passing hundreds of women and men en route to the starting line, I couldn’t fight back the tears. I asked myself, “Why is it so moving to contemplate this word, this state of being called “survivor?” And what is it about this universal solidarity I’m experiencing, this group expression of empathy and understanding that is equally as moving? All walks of life were represented at this event. And it is rare, even in New York City, for an event to be so diverse, where an issue touches everyone beyond race, religion, ethnicity, or gender.

As happens in my life now on a regular basis, my mind jumped to a quote from one of the many people we interviewed for The People’s Temple. Shanette Oliver said that she was in her office one day and “googled” Jonestown. She was surprised when her name came up as “survivor.” Tears streamed down her face. And I began to understand at yet another level, how difficult it must have been for survivors of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, in the aftermath of Jonestown, to never have experienced the kind of human or universal recognition that I saw at the “Making Strides” event. There was healing in the air that Sunday morning, a sense that people would overcome this together, a solidarity which remains elusive for many former Temple members. I remembered something that Eugene Smith said to us: “We’ll never be seen as survivors. We’ll only be seen as the ones who got away.”

Whatever the individual circumstances and whatever the levels of culpability, people struggling in the aftermath to find understanding, to own their place in the story, in history, to own their truth and level of responsibility, and to learn the lessons and rebuild their lives, each and every one of the people we met and interviewed for the play were true survivors. And it is almost unfathomable just how much suffering and loss they all endured – a whole world, a whole human family, gone in one night. My admiration for the people I have met grew even stronger that Sunday morning. I then grasped – if only for a moment – how much more difficult this act of surviving is without the universal acceptance or societal permission to be seen as “survivors.”

* * * * *

In the gap since the play premiered at The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, I have been slowly and meticulously re-writing the play, clarifying the story and my artistic vision. They play is still very much about the movement and about what it means to survive such a tragic event. There was much “interest” in New York, but many producers have concluded that the play is just “too big.” Non-profit theater is not swimming in money, and the prospect of a 12-person cast and a story about Jonestown has intimidated a lot of artistic directors, even when they love the play. I haven’t knocked on every door yet, but I will. And while other work projects are beginning to take the foreground in my life, I remain committed to telling this story in theaters across the country and around the world, most especially touching young people at both the high school and college levels.

There are also theaters in Washington, DC, Chicago and Denver who are interested for next season. I will keep people posted as things progress. I have a lot of faith that this play will find its right artistic home(s), in the right time, in the right theater and the right producer’s hands.

I remain honored to have spent these years with the many true survivors and with this story. And I know in this lapse between productions, that the play is growing stronger and stronger.

– Leigh Fondakowski, Playwright/director, The People’s Temple

(Author’s note: The People’s Temple was commissioned by Z Space Studio in San Francisco, David Dower, Artistic Director. It had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley, CA in April 2005, for which it won the Glickman Award for best new play of 2005 in the Bay Area.)