Bloodlines to Oblivion. By Jamal Williams. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, August 2017. 125 pages. $12.00 paper.
Bloodlines to Oblivion, a play written by Jamal Williams, was first produced in San Francisco in 1983 at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. This volume includes the list of actors who performed that April night, and opens with a photograph from the production of the two main characters, Hazel and Arthur Brown, as played by Leona Harris and Garwood Perkins, to whose memory the book is dedicated.
The theme of bloodlines in the Brown family threads through the story of this San Francisco family and their neighbors in an unnamed project apartment building three weeks before the Jonestown massacre. Peoples Temple member Hazel Brown is intent on taking her daughter Angel and her son, Junior, to Jonestown the next day. Her husband, Arthur, refuses to go, and spends valuable time plotting with his neighbor, Hank, to prevent this exodus from taking place.
The family is in disarray: physically, the apartment is half-packed, Hazel deciding what to bring to Guyana and what to put into storage, while her neighbor, Lucy (married to Hank), is drooling over various objects she clearly wants to own. “This beautiful thing is going to gather dust in a box in a dark storage room?” Lucy’s comical questions relieve the stress the Brown family is experiencing, providing the audience needed laughter throughout the play.
All the underlying factors that led black families to the Peoples Temple in the 1970s appear in the Brown family story: Junior is a Vietnam vet who’s turned to drugs and now owes lots of money to a dealer. The oldest daughter, Blue, has left with her baby and does not appear until late in the play, unexpectedly. We learn that Hazel banished her daughter when she became pregnant without a husband. Arthur and his friend Hank both work for the postal service and have a steady paycheck, but this income has not allowed them to move out of the projects. “My mother raised me in housing complexes like this and ain’t nothing complex about the fact that three generations haven’t made any ground,” laments Hazel. “What a sorry ass inheritance to leave to your children. I’m changing all that now.”
Angel is 17 years old with an acceptance letter to Berkeley, and a cool boy named Slade has captured her heart. Now pregnant, Angel fears telling her family about her condition.
The neighbor couple, Lucy and Hank, also Peoples Temple members at one time, have no children. Earlier, they decided not to go to Jonestown, and have been trying to talk Hazel out of leaving for the “Promised Land.”
“Our children are withering on this society’s vine,” says Hazel, trying to convince her husband that Guyana will be more fruitful for their progeny than the San Francisco they inhabit in 1978.
Arthur disagrees. “Race had nothing to do with our eldest children. We both did lousy, you with Blue and me with Arthur Junior.”
But Hazel is determined. Her estranged sister shows up to help Arthur in his quest. She tries to persuade Hazel to go alone first, to check out the settlement, before bringing her children with her. “Can’t do it,” responds Hazel. “My family goes where I go.”
The community center is putting on a farewell party for the Browns, though the audience comes to understand that Hazel’s decision to leave for Guyana is scorned by many. By this point, in late October of 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan is already planning his trip to investigate rumors about terrible conditions in Jonestown. “Most of them could care less about you leaving,” Lucy tells Hazel. “They were there just for the free food and the good music.”
Nothing, however, can change Hazel’s mind. Briefly, she talks to the God she once worshipped, before attending the Peoples Temple. In this scene, she is alone and more vulnerable – not the tough mama persona – than we’ve yet seen her. “Lord, I know I don’t have the right to come to you after I’ve renounced you. But only you know that in my heart I could never deny you despite what I’ve said at the People’s Temple. My decision has brought me to the edge and I don’t see any other way, but to step off. We’re on our way to a better place than this. Watch over me and my children.”
This confession is heartbreaking. The audience of 1983 when the play was performed, and of 2017, when it was published, already knows what will soon happen to the residents of Jonestown. Yet, at this moment in the play, we still hope Hazel might yet be persuaded not to go.
Bloodlines concerns itself with the inheritance that African Americans leave to their children and grandchildren. Arthur has rejected his son, who did what he was supposed to by fighting for his country in Vietnam. But Junior’s inability to adjust to civilian life upon his return infuriated his father, who mercilessly bares the tracks on Junior’s arms to convince the unwilling Hazel that her son is indeed an addict.
“Yeah, I’m a Junkie. But that don’t give you the right to crucify me in front of my mother,” complains Junior, who is closer to his mother than to his father, who has more or less disowned him. “And you can’t erase the fact that I’m still your first born, the start of your bloodline, your son. Your F’n bloodline – all my life you’ve reminded me of my place in your bloodline. ‘Son you grow up and do something great for the family.’ For your shit ass bloodline. Now I mainline in the bloodline with Heroin.”
Readers and audience members know that many African American bloodlines will end in violent death in Guyana. We are invited by Junior’s words to compare these awful fates, and our contemplation leads us into darkness.
Junior’s speech cuts to the core: his despair, his honesty, his appeal to his father. We want better for him – we want a Promised Land that will heal his wounds – but we know there is no such place. Arthur implicitly understands this, but Junior is keen to go to escape his drug debts, and Angel feels trapped by her pregnancy, and still a minor, remains under her mother’s thumb.
Ultimately, Arthur acknowledges that his wife’s will overrules his. “I’m the fool alright. A fool to let some crazy preacher break up my household. A fool to not act like a man and put his foot down when needed.”
Beneath the surface of the play, black masculinity simmers: what the black man can and cannot do in the United States of 1978, the sense that their masculinity is challenged. In the play, we see it challenged by black women and by Jim Jones, the white preacher, who reigns as victor here.
Bloodlines to Oblivion might be able to be staged today if the audience has some knowledge of what is happening in the moment of the play, three weeks before November 18. Without that background, today’s audience could not comprehend the scope of the Brown family’s tragedy.
The story here is powerful and worth reading, as it recreates a moment of pathos that will come to seem even more devastating when the curtain drops. Unfortunately, the book suffers – as so many self-published books do in the 21st century – lacking editors and proofreaders: No one is around to point out the errors, large and small, that salt the text and back cover. Such errors take the reader out of the story. Suddenly, for example, instead of thinking about Hazel’s problematic righteousness, we’re acknowledging that a stage direction we’ve read three times is a repetition and should have been deleted twice. Or that “almost 900 souls” is incorrect to describe the number of Peoples Temple members who died at Jonestown.
Although we know from the first page that the play we are reading was performed on April 3, 1983, the contemporary reader must ask how much has changed in urban “projects” since then. The bleak conditions for African Americans that made a Jim Jones possible as savior persist in many parts of the United States, urban and rural. Are today’s black children still withering on society’s vine? The false prophets of the 21st century go by other names, but still feed like bloodsuckers on others’ misery.