Family can mean a lot of things. For some, it refers strictly to blood relations. For others, it’s taken in a broader sense, and extends to people who love and care for one another. For the members of Peoples Temple, it meant everything. Love was the fuel that made Peoples Temple run, something which was washed away in the paranoia and poisoned flavor-aid.
I learned about this deep love through meeting and eventually playing real Temple members in American Theater Company’s production of The People’s Temple, a documentary play that tells about the rise and fall of the movement. And in the end, that love, that sense of community – and not Jim Jones and not the devastation he created – became the heart and soul of the play. From long Sundays filled with gospel and dancing, to partying on a bus across the nation with friends, or to simply finding a place to belong, is what the Temple was about as much, if not more so, than the mass deaths in Jonestown. As tragic and horrific as Jonestown was, I also discovered the pure joy that the Temple brought to some people, and I speak for everyone in the cast when I say we were dedicated to portraying that joy as authentically as possible.
It was through discovering this happiness I found my personal take-away from the play. I expected to encounter broken, unhappy people in the survivors who agreed to talk with us. Instead we met some of the most engaging and wonderful human beings I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with. From the heroism of Jim Jones’ son Stephan, to the emotional openness of former Temple member Laura Johnston Kohl, to the well-spoken determination of Jonestown survivor Tim Carter, along with many others, all have found their ways into my heart. All of them taught me the incredible value of life. They were put through nightmares in which they lost everything, cash, property even loved ones. Yet they not only live on, but exist as wonderful and courageous human beings.
While this tragedy may be misinterpreted by some as a cult suicide fit for the tabloids of history, the Youth Ensemble of American Theater Company will be forever humbled by entering into the lives of these wonderful people, in order to build a family both on and off stage, to give a voice to the 918 who lost their lives. For a couple of nights, we were blessed to share a story that was as wonderful as it was tragic.
(In May, Andrew graduated from Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. He just began his freshmen year at Ithaca College pursuing a BFA in Acting. Andrew portrayed Tim Carter, Mike Touchette, and Marshall Kilduff in The People’s Temple.)