The Death of a Brother

There are some people who become so much a part of a person’s life and family that the term “friend” is too insignificant. Really, “brother” is much more reflective of the relationship. PJ Paparelli had that intimacy with the survivors of Peoples Temple and with the artists who worked hard to share our stories.

In 2001, the San Francisco Z Space – and most especially, its founder David Dower – funded Leigh Fondakowski in her efforts to write and direct a Peoples Temple production. It was especially important because before that time, no media voice would ever speak about the happenings of Peoples Temple and Jonestown in any sort of even-handed way. Leigh was determined to tell the full story – the full, very complicated, story.

After several years of interviews and research, Leigh debuted her theater production of The People’s Temple at the Berkeley Rep, first for survivors, and then for Bay Area audiences. It was wonderful. Following its six-week run there, Leigh took the show to the Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska.

It was at this theater that Perseverance Theater Artistic Director PJ Paparelli had his first contact with the intense message of the play and to the stories of those who were so impacted by Peoples Temple. One of many visionary projects under PJ’s guidance was a revised version of The People’s Temple by members of the Tectonic Theatre, which then took the play to The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

In 2007, PJ became the Artistic Director of the American Theater Company in Chicago, where he was named New City’s “Top 50 Most Influential Theatre Players in Chicago” in three different years, 2008, 2011, and 2013. Almost immediately upon his arrival, he arranged to stage The People’s Temple at the ATC. At Leigh Fondakowski’s invitation, several survivors flew to Chicago to see the Opening Night of the production. Claire Janaro, Juanell Smart and I attended, and PJ and the whole cast treated us like royalty. Before we flew home the next day, PJ sat with us and we reminisced for several hours. Our friendship and intimacy were born then.

PJ (bottom left) and Laura (bottom center) with Chicago kids at CHS
PJ (bottom left) and Laura (bottom center) with Chicago kids at California Historical Society

During the summer of 2013, PJ gathered twenty inner-city high school drama students to perform The People’s Temple again. As part of their education, PJ brought them to California to meet us, to visit the California Historical Society, and to visit the sites where Peoples Temple flourished. So many people jumped in to speak with the students! Alan Swanson, Garry Lambrev, Tim Carter, Jordan Vilchez, Eugene Smith, Stephan Jones, Vern Gosney, and I spent time either in person or on Skype, and others did too, I know. The students had a wonderful time, inspired to be in character because of PJ’s mentoring. He took such good care of them and of their process in portraying Peoples Temple members in the cast. It was a tremendous experience for everyone involved, and PJ was such an enthusiastic and thoughtful mentor for them, with such a brilliant insight and understanding.

On May 21, 2015, I learned about the car accident that took PJ’s life in Scotland. I was reminded that there is no justice in who lives and who dies. The talent that PJ expressed each and every day will be truly missed. He was an inspiration and a wonderful brother.

(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.)