PJ and the American Theater Company

by Laura Johnston Kohl

08d-01a-laura & emiliaAbout four years ago, several survivors and I flew to Chicago to watch a production of The People’s Temple, a play by Leigh Fondakowski, and her collaborators, Greg Pierotti, Margo Hall, and Stephen Wangh. While there, we met PJ Paparelli, the Artistic Director of the American Theater Company. PJ had been instrumental in bringing the play from the Perseverance Playhouse in Alaska, where he worked previously.

Our friendship has lasted over the years. This spring, PJ let me know that he was mentoring a youth group of high school actors from inner city Chicago, and that this group would be performing The People’s Temple. PJ and his assistant Laura Matthews worked diligently to bring the actors out to San Francisco, where they could experience the environment of Peoples Temple, and he wondered if I would help.

I arranged for as many survivors as possible to meet with them, and – as it turned out – I was the first. I met up with them at the California Historical Society the day after they arrived. I told them about how I had lived in the Temple and how I survived afterwards. They were genuinely interested in all aspects, from the Temple’s history in the 1960s and 1970s to the details of everyday, mundane life inside. They had wonderfully insightful questions and observations. I was delighted to get to meet with them.

I was not alone. By the end of their time in California, they had met with five other Temple members – and eventually talked on the phone with several others – who all told our vision of the way we wanted the world, beginning in our Peoples Temple community, to be. As they took the stage the first night, they realized too that they were not in a “play.” Rather, they were acting out a piece of history that even now is unfathomable.

(Laura Johnston Kohl, who had lived in Jonestown but was working in Georgetown on 18 November, died on 19 November 2019 after a long battle with cancer. She was 72. Her writings for this website appear here.)

(An extensive interview with Laura appeared in the March 5, 2017 edition of The Western Front, the news service of Western Washington University.)

Originally posted on October 13th, 2013.

Last modified on November 20th, 2019.
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