BERKELEY, Calif., April 17 – After three years of working on “The Laramie Project” – the award-winning show about the murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard – Leigh Fondakowski, the head writer, was hoping to avoid another dark, depressing subject. The actor and writer Greg Pierotti, another “Laramie” veteran, shared her concern. He was contemplating a comedy, a Feydeau farce perhaps.
Instead they created a play about Jonestown and what led up to the massacre there. On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 members of People’s Temple, the religious cult led by Rev. Jim Jones, drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. More than a third of the members were children. (The deaths came the day after the group killed Representative Leo J. Ryan, a Democrat of California, who had traveled to Jonestown, Guyana, on a fact-finding mission.)
“The theater is in a unique position to tell the story in a different kind of way,” Ms. Fondakowski said. Her drama, “The People’s Temple,” opens here Wednesday night at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.
As Ms. Fondakowski, who also directs the play, and Mr. Pierotti took a break from rehearsals last week, she recalled her initial reluctance to become involved in the project. She had received a call from David Dower, the artistic director at Z Space Studio, a theater development center in San Francisco, who had long believed that a drama could “open a lens on the way we viewed Jonestown.” As soon as he saw “The Laramie Project,” he knew Ms. Fondakowski was the person to do it, though she was not so sure.
Later, when she participated in a telephone meeting that Mr. Dower had organized with some survivors in San Francisco, her interest was piqued.
They complained, she said, that when their story had been told before, the approach was always simplistic. They were asked the same questions again and again: How could temple members have taken the poison? How could they murder their children?
Ms. Fondakowski, 35, Mr. Pierotti, 40, the other two writers – Margo Hall and Stephen Wangh – and an archivist spent much of the next three years researching the subject. They pored through hundreds of boxes of letters, fliers, diaries and transcriptions of Jones’s rambling speeches, and they interviewed more than 75 survivors, some as many as 10 times. All the play’s dialogue comes directly from interviews and documents.
Ms. Fondakowski was 9 when the Jonestown incident occurred. She remembered Jones, his wide sunglasses and the Kool-Aid. But, she said, she hadn’t known that People’s Temple was a political movement as well as a religious sect. Jones deliberately sought out poor blacks to join the temple, which fed, clothed and housed them and provided health care. Members thought they were building a utopian community. That belief in a larger cause, a blindness to Jones’s autocratic rule and a willingness to follow him even in death are the subjects at the heart of the production.
As difficult as it was to research “The Laramie Project,” Ms. Fondakowski said, researching “The People’s Temple” was harder.
Ms. Hall, who is African American, contacted black survivors. “I came up against a lot of closed doors,” said Ms. Hall, who lost two childhood friends at Jonestown. “It was very hard to get people to trust what we were doing.” It wasn’t until Jim Jones Jr., Jones’s adopted black son, spoke to her that others came forward.
When he understood that the play would not focus on the suicides and murders but on, as he said, “Why these people were willing to go to Jonestown and work on something they really believed in,” he decided to cooperate.
“The reason they were there was not to follow a madman but to create a new world,” Jim Jones Jr. said. “When you look at humanity, isn’t that what we all want to do?”
Jones’s biological son, Stephan, now 45, was interviewed by the writers so often that he became friends with some of them. “We were a rich, diverse group capable of great highs and great lows,” he said of People’s Temple, adding that his stay in Jonestown “was the best time of my life.” He was 19 when nearly everyone he knew died. “We had our darkness and our light,” he said. “I think it’s important to put it all out there.”
When other former members agreed to talk to the writers, they, along with Jones’s sons, spoke about their belief in the integrated community. But they also recounted the spying, the beatings and Mr. Jones’s fake healings with chicken livers.
In the play, James Carpenter, the actor playing the temple member Tim Carter says: “Why didn’t I just knock over the vat of poison? Why didn’t anybody just knock the vat of poison over? It had never crossed my mind. It never once crossed my mind.”
Ms. Fondakowski said that the “biggest dramaturgical challenge” was to show that these people were not completely alien. “We don’t want people to think of them as ‘other,’ ” she said. “We’re trying very hard to show the context within which these things would have been done, to show the mindset behind them.”
Early on, Ms. Fondakowski learned that the city of San Francisco had supported the temple. Civic leaders had embraced Jones, who provided busloads of members whenever a politician needed volunteers. When Willie Brown Jr., a former mayor of San Francisco who was a powerful state legislator at the time, introduced Jones at an event, he called him a combination of Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Albert Einstein and Chairman Mao.
In June 2004, the ensemble gave a series of readings for the survivors. Ms. Fondakowski said the overall reaction was positive, but she began receiving a flood of e-mails about costumes, direction and how to tell the story. “It’s hard because we took their stories, but we’re not a mouthpiece for them,” she said. She went into seclusion.
“It’s been very difficult to explain that we’re making art,” she said. “There’s a constant dialogue that’s still ongoing. People ask, ‘How can you tell the story without putting so-and-so in the story?’ Well, we can. We’re telling the story of a movement. It has an arc. But it’s not a history of People’s Temple.”
To Ms. Fondakowski, it’s a story about human nature. “We don’t talk about it,” she said. “We don’t generally like to think of ourselves in that manner, but what one human being is capable of, I believe all human beings are capable of.”