This summer I had the experience of a lifetime: I was a cast member in the American Theatre Company youth ensemble’s production of The People’s Temple. This was an eye-opening, revelation-filled, educating experience.
Our journey began with a trip to San Francisco. We spent the day at the California Historical Society looking though the archives. We looked through documents, letters, newspaper clippings, and pictures. The moment I saw those pictures, it deepened my sense of anger and sorrow I had for the tragedy itself. But it also filled me with empathy and understanding. Seeing those pictures added human faces and thus made the “characters” in the script real, for they were real people, living in unfortunate circumstances in the United States.
What also added to this were the testimonies given from the survivors. We met with Eugene Smith, whom I played in the play. After reading the script and going over it in table work sessions, I thought I had a pretty good idea of the Temple, and about him and the type of person he was. The moment he walked in the door, he disproved all of them. I expected him to be a melancholy spirit, hardened by his experience. He turned out to have one of the most jubilant personalities I have ever met. He told us stories about the Temple and his experiences, and while these stories hadn’t made it into play, they gave me an extra depth of this person I was to portray. When he spoke of the final day, it was obvious that it had an effect on him, but through all of the unfortunate events that changed his life, he still keeps a welcoming aura of hopeful wisdom.
The faces in the photos and the words of the survivors fueled the ensemble. We pushed and worked hard to tell this story. We wanted to do justice to the stories and lives of these souls. So when opening night came, our desire was not to win applause or steal the spotlight. We were telling the story of those who could not speak, those who could not be here to tell it themselves. Our director PJ Paparelli, gave us the words of inspiration that summed up my experience onstage when he said, “You’re going onstage and you’re going to have over 900 souls there with you, supporting you, because you are giving them a voice. You’re telling their stories.”
(Michael Morrow is a senior at the Chicago High School for the Arts in Chicago, Illinois. A native of the South Side of Chicago, Michael plans to study acting at college next year. Michael portrayed Eugene Smith, Jim Jones Jr., and Odell Rhodes in The People’s Temple.)