Theater Team Shows Complexity of Jonestown Interviews

Stories from Jonestown and the Peoples Temple is the working title of a play created from interviews with former Temple members and surviving families. The play was commissioned by The Z Space Studio in San Francisco, a leading center for new play development for the American theater. In the paragraphs below, Leigh Fondakowski and her collaborators Greg Pierotti, Margo Hall and Stephen Wangh describe what the work up to this point has meant for them.

When my collaborators and I began this process 18 months ago, we soon discovered that a huge body of material on Jonestown and Peoples Temple—books, essays, articles, films, and documentaries about the Temple—already existed. So we were immediately forced to ask ourselves: What might we as theater artists have to contribute to the dialogue on Peoples Temple as the milestone of the 25th anniversary approaches?

At first, this question did not daunt us. Several of us had worked on The Laramie Project, a play created in the aftermath of the brutal beating and death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. During that work, we had also wondered what we as theater artists might do to bring new insights to an American tragedy. We discovered that in Laramie, Wyoming we could sit down with people and in a few hours hear how Matt Shepard’s death had affected their lives.

But working on the story of Peoples Temple has been a strikingly different experience. As we have spent time with ex-Temple members and others affected by this story, we have come to understand that these people have suffered losses that we outside the Temple cannot begin to fathom. And we also began to perceive that – because we were dealing with events that happened 25 years ago – the people we were talking to have moved on and re-built their lives, and we started to realize that we might be asking them to revisit memories they had spent years putting to rest. What we were asking them to do, as one interviewee wrote to us in an email, was “The painful work of remembering.”

So, working on this project has been a great learning process for us. One of the lessons it has taught us is how to take our time. Because we are theater people and not journalists, we have been able to take our time seeking out former Temple members, take our time trying to earn their trust, take our time traveling all over the country to meet with people in their homes, and take our time listening to people in deep conversation about their experiences. Our hope is that the time we’ve spent will allow us to create a story that offers a different perspective on the Temple from the one portrayed by the mainstream media.

During the past year, I have been amazed that people who have been burned by the media have taken yet another chance on us. And I have become deeply grateful that some survivors have gone on the record for the first time since Jonestown. In our process we have made some mistakes, and unfortunately, we have alienated some people. But overall, we think we have gathered an incredible body of material. And we have become enormously grateful to everyone who has welcomed us into their homes and opened their hearts to us.

The play is only now beginning to take shape, so we don’t yet know what it will look like in the end. But we are certain that it will be about the rich and diverse community of people whose life experiences led them to the Temple. The events will be told in their voices, filled with their amazing stories, and composed of the complexities and contradictions which Peoples Temple held for its members and their families.

American culture prefers simple stories, with obvious villains and heroes. So our struggle as writers is to allow all the different perspectives to live together on stage – and to help audiences tolerate the contradictions which challenge American attempts to simplify. As one interviewee remarked, “Perception is not necessarily the truth.” But perception is also not necessarily an untruth. The survivors live with and in the question, and the contradictions are what make the story a living and socially relevant one.

We had hoped to have the play completed for the 25th anniversary in November. But again, we must give ourselves time. It wouldn’t make sense to put our work out there until we feel it is ready. And it wouldn’t be fair to the people who have trusted us with their stories. Right now we estimate our play to go into production around the spring of 2004.

To mark the 25th anniversary period in San Francisco, we will present readings of the work-in-progress script at the Magic Theatre in October. We hope that many of our interviewees will join us at that time, and share their thoughts on our work up to that point.

I’ve brought along with me on this journey an amazing group of writers and collaborators. The writing / interviewing team is Greg Pierotti, Stephen Wangh, and Margo Hall, with Greg as head writer. Project researcher and dramaturg Denice Stephenson is an essential part of our team through her work at the California Historical Society. Through her efforts at the archive, we are constantly receiving new material, which strengthens our understanding of Peoples Temple history. And some of these archival materials have been integrated into the narrative of our play. Colman Domingo, the latest addition to our team, is also serving as dramaturg. What follows are reflections from some of the members of that team:

Before I was invited to participate in this project, I knew nothing beyond what most people seem to know about Jonestown and Peoples Temple. My understanding was that a very large group of people, led by a man named Jim Jones, committed mass suicide by drinking a fruit punch laced with cyanide. That was it. So when I was invited to participate in the writing of a play about Peoples Temple, I naively set about the task of simply trying to understand what had happened — so that I could explain it to an audience.

Slowly I have learned how much I did not know. I didn’t know that the Temple had roots in Indiana and the Pentecostal Church. I didn’t know that it was partially guided by a socialist utopian vision. I had never heard that between 70 and 80 percent of its members were African American. I had no idea that Peoples Temple was a political force in the Bay Area, exchanging favors with many serious players in Californian Politics. I knew nothing about the controversy over whether the atrocity at Jonestown was a mass murder or a suicide. And I didn’t know that so many children’s lives were taken.

I wish I could say that after all the time and energy I have put into this work, I had reached an understanding of “the truth” of Peoples Temple. I certainly know a lot of facts now that I didn’t know before. But now I no longer believe that the tragedy of Peoples Temple is something that I can get to the bottom of. I have come to respect this story as far more vast than the span of my individual understanding.

So the play that I had in mind initially, the play that was meant to explain everything, has been transformed, for me, into a play about a mystery. Every person I have had the opportunity to interview has their own very specific view of what happened and why. Often different peoples’ viewpoints and experiences have seemed diametrically opposed. Some were members to the end, and some were never members but lost loved ones. Some are forgiving, and some are bitter. Some completely regret their involvement, and some still cherish parts of their experience in the Temple. Some blame Jim, some blame themselves, and some blame others. Some blame everyone, and some blame no one at all. Everyone’s experience is so different. The only common denominator I have found among all the amazing people I have met during this work is that each has loved profoundly and suffered profoundly. That is what everyone who was touched by the tragedy of Jonestown seems to share: Profound love and suffering.

Thinking back now on my first meeting at The Z Space with a group of survivors assembled as advisors for the Peoples Temple Project, I remember it was an incredible meeting! The diversity of stories, the passion, the emotion made me feel immediately that I was in the right place at the right time; about to begin a journey of self-exploration, and personal challenges; a venture that would go deeper than anything I had ever worked on.

Two years into this journey, I have often found myself deeply moved by the stories of these brave, courageous people; stories so full of hope and desire: Families honoring the wishes of their loved ones and not knowing what the future may bring. Throughout the interviews, these people opened their hearts to us, shared their pain, often eager to purge themselves of some of the burden of 25 years of holding on to a haunting memory. My awesome responsibility was to listen and get the story right. But as I listened, I often couldn’t help thinking what the people of Peoples Temple might have accomplished had not this tragic event of November 18th, 1978 occurred.

On a personal note: One of the many who died in Jonestown was Marthea Hicks, along with her two sons and her sister. Hers is just one of the many African American voices stilled by that tragedy. But Marthea was a close friend of my own family in Detroit. As a child, I remember my mother and father being deeply saddened by her loss and the loss of her family. So, it has been a great personal joy for me to hear the kind words spoken of Marthea by the people we have interviewed: how she sang so beautifully and, oh, her infectious laughter! Collaborating on the story of the people of Peoples Temple has held many challenges, but it has also allowed me the chance to be a voice for Marthea and her sons and sister, and so it has given me a very special reason to be a part of this project.

Thank you to the many who have shared their stories with us.

During this past year, the more I have listened to ex-members of Peoples Temple, the more I have felt the difficulty of conveying the power of what they have been telling us. The story of the Temple seems so difficult to tell, not simply because it is so complex, but also because America is such a different place in 2003 than it was in the 1970s. As sociologist of religion John R. Hall pointed out to us, Jonestown was “[t]he end of the utopian movement for everybody—not just for the members of the Peoples Temple, but for everybody.”
And yet perhaps that is exactly why it important that we try to tell the stories of Peoples Temple. For at their core, these are not only wonderful, human stories of an American tragedy, but they are also the stories of people who dared to believe that they could improve the world. As Hall went on to say, “Many of the problems that were identified in the 60’s and 70’s are problems that are still with us today. So it’s not that we’ve solved those problems…. I think that was one of the many tragedies about Jonestown.”
So I’ve come to think that in writing this play we have two enormous tasks before us. The first is to convey the beauty and sincerity of the people we’ve met. The second is to speak clearly to an audience of 21st Century Americans, an audience whose belief in societal improvement has, in Hall’s words, been “eroded away in favor of fear.”
The difficulty and the importance of this second task was brought home to me by Temple member Bryan Kravitz who urged me to “imagine thinking about a world that was much better [than this one].” Then he lamented, “You can’t fathom it because you’ve never had it. You lived in this society. We, they, these people you’ve talked to, had an opportunity to see something else.”

When we were first beginning our work, one of our interviewees teased us: “Be careful not to get swept into the Jonestown Vortex.” At the time, we laughed politely, not knowing what we were getting ourselves into. Now we are coming to understand what that means. The more you know, the less you understand and the more people you meet and the more questions you have, the more you long for a deeper understanding – and so the cycle continues.

My colleagues and I have sometimes felt overwhelmed by our task. We are playwrights, not historians or scholars. What we are writing will inevitably be a form of fiction, even as it based on factual events and told in the voices of the survivors. At this point, we only know one thing for sure: that the Temple was made up of an extraordinary group of people – people with strong beliefs, hopes and dreams, and with a vision for the way society should be. Above all we know that this is a profoundly human story – a story filled with the joys and the regrets of deeply caring human beings. For those of us working on this project, it has become an open door, inviting each of us to identify with the people we’ve met and, through them, to learn more about our world and about ourselves. We are hopeful that we can fashion a play which will also be such a door for the audiences who come to witness the Stories from Jonestown and the Peoples Temple.

To contact the writers of the Stories from Jonestown and the Peoples Temple, please email Leigh Fondakowski through this website or call her at (718) 788-3607.