Moving the Needle on the “Jonestown Piece”

by Meghann Williams

It has been a number of years since I first started thinking about a theatrical piece on Jonestown and Peoples Temple. During those years I have read many books on the subject, listened to countless recordings of Jim Jones’ sermons and broadcasts, watched hours of documentaries and footage, and perhaps most importantly, found myself connected with the Jonestown Institute and this annual report.

The problem I experienced – as so many other writers and creative artists have experienced – is that once the research portion of creation was through, I often felt overwhelmed. How could I possibly honor the memory of the members of Peoples Temple and create a piece artistically fulfilling at the same time?

In short, I was stuck. Very, very stuck.

About eight months ago, I decided to let the idea go. Maybe it was something I would have to develop in later years, once I had lived a bit more and had more experience and gravitas to offer the work. And the moment I decided to put this “Jonestown Piece” (as I was calling it to friends and colleagues) on the back burner, I realized how it could be done.

It will be a work in three acts: Peoples Temple, Jonestown, and November 18, 1978. As I wrote in a prior issue of the jonestown report, I have had trouble getting around the idea of representing the individuals who were part of Peoples Temple in a properly honorific and truthful way. Mostly because of this, I have decided to split the story into two representations: an illustrated allegory and modern dance. The story of the rise of Peoples Temple, establishment of Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, and the ultimate demise of Jonestown will be relayed allegorically in illustrated form via vintage View-Masters.

An audience of 10-15 people will be seated in a circle and each given a View-Master with three discs. I will narrate the story – simply told, without fuss or theatrics – along with live music. At the end of the first disc, the audience will put aside their View-Masters and there will be a dance interpretation of the move from San Francisco to Guyana. The second disc will tell of the foundations of the Agricultural Project and the beginnings of its breakdown. After that disc, the dance interprets the steps that lead to the tragedy on November 18. The third disc tells the story of what happened that day, followed by dance exploring Jonestown, Port Kaituma airstrip, and Georgetown. A short epilogue, spoken over live music, will address the aftermath: the way the world reacted, the survivors, how we are still affected today.

Certainly, this project will be a massive undertaking involving many artists (especially since I am neither a dancer nor musician nor illustrator). I have not yet received funding to develop the piece, but am now driving toward that goal, applying to many granting institutions both local and national. I will update the community once we are able to start producing, and I welcome any feedback you may have.

(Meghann Williams lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at meghannw@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 28th, 2013.

Last modified on December 5th, 2013.
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