The People's Temple, on Stage

A new play at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre attempts to tell the story of the People's Temple, the religious cult whose members followed leader Jim Jones in a mass suicide in 1978. Cy Musiker of San Francisco member station KQED reports that the documentary-based performance tries to reverse misconceptions surrounding the group by looking more closely at its beliefs in social justice and racial equality.

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`Drinking the Kool-Aid' is a catchphrase these days suggesting unswerving loyalty. It grew out of a tragedy in 1978 when nearly a thousand members of the People's Temple committed mass suicide. They drank a cyanide-laced grape drink at Jonestown in the jungles of Guyana in South America. It was the closing chapter in a tale that seemed to begin with great promise. That story is told in the new play "The People's Temple" at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California. Cy Musiker of member station KQED has this report.

CY MUSIKER reporting:

There's more joy and song in "The People's Temple" than you might expect.

(Soundbite of rehearsal)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Don't you know that I...

Group of People: (Singing) ...went to a...

MUSIKER: Members of the company warm up at the beginning of every rehearsal with the same gospel songs featured at People's Temple service.

(Soundbite of rehearsal)

Group of People: (Singing) Something...

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Something...

Group of People: (Singing) ...got ahold of me.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Oh, yes. One more time.

MUSIKER: The cast of 10 re-create telling moments from services at the People's Temple showing how people were moved by the radical preaching style of Jim Jones.

(Soundbite of rehearsal)

Unidentified Woman: Jim, would take the Bible and throw it down on the floor, and you'd be, like, `Wow. He doesn't fear the Word of God?' And that's when he would start making those statements, `Believe in only what you can see. You see me; therefore, I am your God.'

Group of People: (Singing) ...Holy Ghost, what...

MUSIKER: Jones drew controversy from the moment he started the People's Temple in Indiana in 1955. He claimed to be God, to have the power to heal the sick, and he offended many by preaching a gospel of racial integration and socialism. The church grew in power and influence as it moved to Northern California and then San Francisco in the 1970s. Jones made large donations to civic causes, ran food programs and put temple members to work campaigning for powerful local politicians.

Ms. LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI (Lead Writer and Director, "The People's Temple"): It was a black movement, and it was a political movement. And when we've traveled the country doing readings, that's an eye-opener for most of our audience.

MUSIKER: Leigh Fondakowski is lead writer and director for "The People's Temple."

Ms. FONDAKOWSKI: People come thinking about, `Oh, I'm going to see a play about a cult.' And then you realize the first time Jones opens his mouth that you agree with his politics.

MUSIKER: Fondakowski and her writing team have crafted the play from thousands of hours of interviews. They've also tapped materials from the Jonestown collection at the California Historical Society. Much of the play is set amidst the tall stacks of the archives. Fondakowski developed this documentary technique as a member of the Tectonic Theater Company. She was the lead writer for the group on "The Laramie Project," a dramatic oral history about the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming.

Ms. FONDAKOWSKI: In Laramie, we were interested in the theater's relationship to current events, and here, it's the theater's relationship to history. And what do we, as theater artists, have to contribute to the huge body of material that's already out there on this subject? And I do think that one of the things that the theater can do better than other forms is it can contain a lot of stories.

MUSIKER: Fondakowski started the project four years ago with hopes of putting it on the stage in time for the 25th anniversary of Jonestown in 2003. But she says getting survivors and relatives of those who died to trust her and the other writers took longer than they expected.

Ms. FONDAKOWSKI: People who have come forward to speak have felt a little burned. You know, they would sit down with a reporter for hours, and then only the two minutes that were just about the deaths or the suicide or the most sensational aspects of the story would be used.

Mr. EUGENE SMITH (Former Member of the People's Temple): I never have talked about it in length at one time ever before.

MUSIKER: Eugene Smith was interviewed by Fondakowski just a few months ago.

Mr. SMITH: For all these years, I'd basically hidden it, held it inside and just festered. And I just want to get it out.

MUSIKER: Smith hopes the play dispels the common preconception about Jones and his followers that they were cultists following a madman.

Mr. JONES: This society or people at large just need to know that people just weren't walking around like zombies or anything. There were people there that were there for a just cause and wanted to see better world and that they just got wrapped up and trapped in something that they weren't aware of.

MUSIKER: Smith was a teen-ager living in Fresno when his mother joined the temple. She hoped the church would keep her son from a life of crime. Many blacks were drawn to Jones' message of empowerment and social justice.

Mr. JONES: And it was based not on material wealth, and it was based on who you were as a person and what you were willing to give up and what you were willing to do, not just for yourself, but for the elders, for the children, for those who come in behind you to make a path easier for them.

MUSIKER: Smith stuck with the temple, despite growing misgivings. Some of Jones' closest advisers defected and talked to reporters about beatings and sexual exploitation. Jones feared exposure and abruptly moved nearly a thousand members of the temple to the jungles of Guyana in 1977. A year later California Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown as part of an investigation. Jones ordered the murder of Ryan and members of his party. Then he ordered 913 followers and their children to drink from a vat of cyanide-laced grape drink. Others were shot. Inevitably, the play tells that story.

(Soundbite of "The People's Temple")

Unidentified Man #2: As I write these words, people are silently amassed, taking a quick potion, inducing sleep, relief. We were a long-suffering people. I wish I had time to put it all together.

MUSIKER: The play strives to balance the perspectives of temple members; that letter from a true believer against the angry memories of a survivor.

(Soundbite of "The People's Temple")

Unidentified Man #3: I turned to my right, and at that exact second they were squirting poison into my baby son Malcolm's mouth. And Gloria was--had tears streaming down her cheeks. And I've never been so (censored) angry.

MUSIKER: Such charged material seems sure to revive old controversies. Were the deaths suicide or murder? How could people stay with the church despite the abuses? And in Berkeley, audience members come loaded with judgments based on personal experience. Marshall Kilduff co-wrote the magazine expose of the church that helped prompt the exodus to Jonestown. He saw the play opening night and says the questions raised by the events portrayed in the play are still relevant.

Mr. MARSHALL KILDUFF (Writer): What motivates you? What does your memory tell you about events? Why do we do the things we do? And how do people perceive other people's actions? These are Jonestown questions, but they work for a lot of other challenges, too.

MUSIKER: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"; that quote from George Santayana was displayed on a pavilion in Jonestown. The play's producers were eager to honor that notion and provide a chance for healing and dialogue that wasn't possible back in 1978. Berkeley Rep director Susan Medak recalls the story of Jonestown was driven off the front pages nine days later by the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk.

Ms. SUSAN MEDAK (Director, Berkeley Repertory Theatre): There was none of that public self-analysis, none of that public scrutiny that we now go through over every major crisis that helps us, as a culture, define the meaning of an experience, to define the meaning of a tragedy.

MUSIKER: Many of those interviewed for the play plan to see it during its run through May at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Survivor Eugene Smith says he's tempted to go. He misses that sense of purpose he felt among members of the People's Temple, but he's not sure he wants to relive the pain of Jonestown. He lost a wife, son and daughter there. For NPR News, I'm Cy Musiker in Berkeley.

(Soundbite of "Clocks")

LUDDEN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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