In the past two issues of the jonestown report, I wrote about the novel I was working on, a reimagining of the story of Jonestown. Though I’ve always tackled dark subject matter in my work, nothing else has proven so difficult to navigate, and my efforts made me attuned to how a pallor hangs over everything written about Jonestown, and how easy it is to succumb to melodrama. I struggled through my first draft, and, in the end, I was deeply unsatisfied with the book I had written.
Last February, I decided to start my project from scratch, and drew inspiration from two works in particular: George Konrad’s “The High Priest of Frivolity,” and Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear. Konrad’s short story, surreal and nonlinear, depicts an eleven-year-old boy living in Nazi-occupied Budapest, and I was struck by how Konrad illuminated beauty in such a horrifying experience. God’s Ear, a play about grief, communicated entirely through catchphrases and platitudes, made me think differently about structure and style, leading me to a surprising realization: my story worked better as a play.
The Other Plane is set mostly in 1999, and follows a man named Simon upon his release from prison, where he was sent for his involvement in the murder of Leo Ryan. Stalked by the ghost of Jim Jones, who continually urges him to commit suicide, Simon searches for redemption and struggles to find his place in the world. Meanwhile, in the afterlife – the titular “Other Plane” – Jones’ mistress Ingrid and son Ezra navigate their own feelings about the massacre. Ingrid, styled loosely after Carolyn Layton, grapples with the knowledge that she was complicit in her son’s death. Ezra, now twenty-four – a ghostly, adult reimagining of Kimo Prokes – is a painter preparing for his first gallery exhibition. The only character with true perspective, Ezra serves as a narrator and commentator throughout the play.
The premise is admittedly weird, but it strikes me now that only through a departure from reality could I fully enter the source material, and that I could only find truth by deviating from the real truth. The story of Jonestown is surreal, so why not mirror that in art?
My interests shifted as I worked on the play – the initial question that drove me was, To what extent can a capacity for love be redeeming? – but the final product became more a meditation on loneliness, the desire for connection that is fundamental to all human experience, that leads people into cults. Though Carolyn Layton was the first person to really catch my attention, and remains central to the story, I found myself increasingly drawn to Simon, my fictionalization of Larry Layton, who, like every survivor of the massacre, loses so much, and has to carry on with the weight of his choices. I liked exploring remorse in my characters, both dead and alive, and imagined a “surviving” Jim Jones who is forced to “live” with the consequences of his actions, and who finds himself universally despised after clamoring for love, validation, and power throughout his life.
At San Francisco State, we hold a biannual Fringe Festival, where the play will soon be performed as a staged reading. This format represents a development opportunity, a chance for me to present the play as a workshop, and to see it performed in minimalist fashion: the actors carry scripts, and blocking is minimal, though two months of rehearsals allow for a degree of polish in the final performance. Because most of the people involved are in their twenties, some came into this project unfamiliar with the story of Jonestown, but I think this is a good thing. Though I fictionalized heavily, the play is based upon extensive research, and I like the effect of allowing different interpretations to exist in synchrony. There is no real consensus about what unfolded in Jonestown, what life there was like, or what the community ultimately represented, and I want to give my actors the opportunity to find themselves in their roles, to discover the story through the script as well as through outside sources.
A conversation with the twenty-one-year-old actor playing Jim Jones proved particularly interesting. “How human should I make him?” he asked me, and I wasn’t sure how to answer. Is anyone, no matter what they do, wholly a monster? Is there some degree of goodness, however deeply buried, in everyone? It’s a question that gnaws at me within this story and outside of it, and in the end I urged him to bring something “human” to the table, to belie the viewer’s expectations. This is art, not life, and humanizing Jones – whether or not that reflects reality – makes the story more interesting. Like every character in the play, Jones is lonely and lost, desperate for meaning and closure – and though he is lampooned to a degree, made deservedly despicable, I hope to challenge my audience by showing vulnerability in him. Thus did I return to my original question: Jones’ conception of love is selfish, but I wanted to render him as capable of it, because I felt that any alternative would flatten the story and isolate the viewer.
I’ve worked on this project for over two years now, and in that time I’ve worried endlessly about how my work will be received by those impacted by the massacre. As I drew closer to my vision, I couldn’t help wondering if a premise so unusual would offend people, if it would seem as though I was poking fun at the Jonestown story. There are many moments of dark comedy in the play, and I was happy with the way my director addressed the risks I took in doing this: she told the actors to embrace the humor, to make the audience laugh as they simultaneously confront deep tragedy. As with other choices I’ve made, I believe that this emphasizes rather than detracts from the humanity of the story.
I would welcome any constructive criticism to the play from anyone in the Peoples Temple community, and would like this article to serve in part as an invitation to attend the staged reading. However, I would like to know in advance if you are interested in coming, to allow you the opportunity to ask questions, so I ask that you contact me for further information about when and where the performances will take place.
I thank everyone who spoke to me during my research process, and all those who shared their stories on this site. This has been a long journey, and I’ve learned so much from all of you.
(Author’s note: My work has also appeared in Narrative Magazine, Reservoir, the Columbia Journal, the Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. A short piece culled from my novel, “The Other Side,” was inspired by Stephan Jones’ essay, “Like Father, Like Son.” I began work on this only months into my project, so it reflects my original conception of the story more so than the final product, though likenesses remain.)