“In the time of your life, live – so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”
Timing is everything. And, for me, the time wasn’t right.
After much deliberation and many discussions with family, friends, and colleagues, I decided to cancel the production of My Father’s House, a play based upon the life of Mike Prokes, especially focusing upon the four months between his escape from Jonestown and his suicide in a Modesto, California motel bathroom. The play had been scheduled to premiere this past July at the Gallo Center for the Arts here in Modesto.
The reasons were many.
First, the story was too dark to continue living with, especially after I had added a scene with Mike Prokes and his father figures, which included Jim Jones. Nearly all of the words spoken by Jones in this scene were taken from transcripts of audiotapes recorded in Jonestown. The more time I spent with Jones and his words, the more I felt that he really was a misguided, egomaniacal, evil man, and I just didn’t feel comfortable giving him any more face time.
Second, I just wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to add anything worthwhile to the dialogue about Jonestown. I was an outsider who had no first-hand knowledge of any aspect of the Jonestown experience. What I had written was beginning to feel a little like tabloid journalism, like the type of sensational story that is told to shock and stun, with little regard for the people involved.
Third, I was beginning to question whether or not I had truly portrayed who Mike Prokes was. My own view – and I mean to present him – is that he was like a Picasso Painting. He was different things to different people. In spite of that, I wasn’t sure I had captured why he did what he did. And that, of course, may be impossible, since we can never know a person completely. Plus, I didn’t want to create any more pain for the family and friends who had lived with this story and who continue to live with it.
Fourth, I was concerned about the legal ramifications. I had consulted with five lawyers during the course of this project. I did my research and due diligence to avoid any liability, but I was still concerned and unconvinced, not only for my sake, but for the sake of the other parties involved that could be damaged by a lawsuit, including the Gallo Center and the Prospect Theater. I just didn’t feel justified in exposing them to any kind of potential liability.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I was not in a place physically, mentally, or emotionally to continue. The stress of all these issues was taking its toll on my health. I wasn’t prepared to live with those problems for the two months it would take to produce the play. I realize that this is sometimes a problem for writers and artists of any kind, but I just wasn’t willing to further jeopardize my well-being for this story.
Suffice it to say, it was a very hard decision. And I did not make it lightly, knowing the amount of time and energy I and many others had already invested. I also knew that I would be disappointing a number of people who had put their trust and faith in me. But it was a decision I felt was necessary. I have learned over the years to trust my gut, and in this case, I did just that.
We all change with time. When I started this project, I, too, had the best of intentions. But, my priorities shifted. The story I wanted to tell was no longer the story I was telling, nor was it something I was passionate enough about.
I have always endeavored to tell stories that enlighten, ennoble, and entertain. Unfortunately, this story really didn’t. The world can be dark, sad, and ugly enough as it is. I didn’t want to make it more so. Ultimately, I felt if I could not diminish the sadness, I did not want to contribute to it. I wanted this story to be It’s a Wonderful Life, but it simply wasn’t.
However, there were many positives that came out of this experience, but for me as a writer and – I hope – for the community of talented people, performing arts organizations, and educational institutions I consider myself a part of that call Modesto and the Central Valley home. There were those, both family and friends of Mike’s, who were reluctant to get involved initially because they didn’t want to re-live the experience. But, once we talked about it and I explained the need to tell the story and the good that could come from doing so, especially to a generation that wasn’t even born in 1979, many of them agreed to help in whatever way they could. And their participation was invaluable. When I spoke to some of them after making the decision to cancel the production, they told me that the entire experience, though painful, had been therapeutic.
Since making my decision, I have talked to many people, had phone conversations, and received email messages about it. Nearly everyone has been supportive and understood my decision and how hard it was to make, especially the family and friends who had the most to risk from resurrecting this story. And nearly everyone encouraged me to not abandon the project. Quite a few urged me to step away from the play and return to it at some point in the future. They all felt it was too important a story to abandon. Their arguments have been compelling enough that I am considering it. At this point in time, I have not abandoned the project, simply put it on hiatus. However, resurrecting it is pretty much in the hands of others.
Fielding McGehee of the Jonestown Institute suggested that I publish the play, instead of producing it. He pointed out that my play was similar in style to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, with complicated and sweeping production demands that might prove too ambitious to present on a stage. He also felt this one might be more effective if it were read and not performed. Fielding has also generously offered to provide a permanent home for the play on the Jonestown Institute website. I am considering that also.
There are many other people to acknowledge for their encouragement and support of this project. I especially wish to thank Jim Johnson, Jack Souza, John Mayer, Lynn Dickerson, Doug Hosner, Mike Sundquist, Lisa Millegan Renner, Mike Lynch, Wes Page, Tom Myers, Tim Carter, and Don Bean, as well as the Prospect Theater Project, the Gallo Center, Modesto Junior College, and CSU Stanislaus, for their unwavering faith. I will be forever indebted to each of these wonderful individuals and organizations.
The decision I made was the right one for me right now. I was simply not prepared mentally, physically, or creatively to continue with the project. That may change with time.
(Ken White’s other article in this edition of the jonestown report is True Believer or Charlatan, Committed Activist or Opportunist? Who Was the Real Mike Prokes? He would like to hear whatever memories and perspectives anyone has on Mike Prokes. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)