From utopia to nightmare

The news came like a slap to the face — dozens, no, hundreds, dead in a mass suicide in Guyana.

People’s Temple faithful — men, women and children, little kids, the kind you cuddle on your lap — drank poisoned grape drink and died in a remote outpost in the jungle, where the church, which had been based in Indianapolis, Ukiah and San Francisco, moved seeking freedom and room to grow.

News of the deaths began Nov. 18, 1978, not long before Thanksgiving.

And as the days passed, and people were stocking the fridge and pantry with turkey and cranberry sauce, the death toll grew.

It was the way the bodies were found, on top of each other, behind doors, hidden away from reluctant takers of the grim census.

Nov. 22, the 15th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, the count grew higher.

Congressman Leo Ryan, a former high school teacher on the Peninsula, was assassinated in Guyana, and his aide, Jackie Speier, was critically injured.

By Nov. 27, the death toll was hovering above 900, again stunning the Bay Area with the ever-growing total. But there were two more deaths that day, closer to home — the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, at the hands of ex-supervisor Dan White.

While not directly connected, the city hall shootings have become tied to the Jonestown deaths by proximity, making November of 1978 remembered as the Bay Area’s winter of horror. And now, even after a quarter-century, there is still public mourning to be done.

At least that’s the feeling among many of those working on a new play about Jonestown. Titled “The People’s Temple,” it’s scheduled to open Wednesday at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and it will likely open some old wounds in the process.

“For many people around here, the two events are connected in our psyches as the time San Francisco went crazy,” says David Dower, head of Z Space Studio, a San Francisco theater company that specializes in developing new works, and which commissioned the writing of what was to become “The People’s Temple.” “Many people forget that during the days between the discoveries of the mass suicide and nine days later when the assassination took place, the numbers kept going up; the body count kept changing.”

Four years in making

Dower commissioned Leigh Fondakowski to write the play in 2001, with plans to produce it on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy in 2003. The project had been on his mind from almost the time it happened. He and his wife, Denice Stephenson, were drama students with Rebecca Moore, whose sister, Ann, was living at Jonestown, as a member of the People’s Temple. Rebecca Moore’s journal, based on correspondence and observations of the era, were a starting point for what was to become more than three years of research and writing.

“That’s the part of the story most people don’t know anything about, which is the core reason I wanted to commission the part,” says Dower. “Having been part of Becky’s life at the time her sister died, I knew things about the People’s Temple before Jonestown. There was a real disconnect between the press and what I knew from Becky, who gave a voice to the common people (involved in the temple).”

Ann Moore was believed to be one of the final people in Jonestown to die. She died from gunshot wounds, but evidence suggests she had also taken the cyanide. She wrote a letter, presumably before her death, at 24, giving her impression of Jim Jones and his utopian colony.

Where can I begin, she wrote. JONESTOWN — the most peaceful, loving community that ever existed, JIM JONES — the one who made this paradise possible — much to the contrary of the lies stated about Jim Jones being a power-hungry sadistic, mean person who thought he was God — of all things. I want you who read this to know that Jim was the most honest, loving, caring concerned person whom I ever met and knew. …”

She ended the letter with: “We died because you would not let us live in peace.”

Other quite negative reports at the time led to a government investigation, media scrutiny and an enormous controversy over Jones, a man many considered messianistic, with a lust for power over, and disregard for, his followers.

Journalism and theater

So with all of that circulating in his mind, and his memories of seeing the Tectonic Theater Project’s productions of “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” and “The Laramie Project,” Dower believed the dramatic technique developed by Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic crew, which blended journalism and theater, was the way to tell the Jonestown story. He approached Fondakowski, head writer of “The Laramie Project” and a member of Tectonic Theater Project since 1995.

Now, years later, with 3,000 pages of typewritten transcripts from people directly involved in one way or another with Jonestown, the play is just about ready for the public eye.

For all involved, the project has taken on the intensity of a spiritual mission. Readings of scenes have prompted discussions that run late into the night. And, as work continued, writers and interviewers noted that even after all these years, a large number of people in the Bay Area still needed to mourn the tragedy that had an enormity nearly impossible to grasp.

“What you have to do is find out how you are going to present information in a way that is theatrical and still true to the story you are telling,” says veteran Bay Area actor James Carpenter, who a week ago was still not sure which of the different characters he would be playing, just scant days before the start of previews. “The idea is to be truthful with those people and the information, try not to slant it in any particular way.”

The creation process, as defined by Tectonic and Fondakowski, involves at least two steps: gathering information — usually documents or in-person interviews, often conducted by actors — and the writing, which is done by juxtaposing the collected words in a way that accurately tells the story and drives it with compelling theatricality.

“We have been learning step-by-step that making theater like this is not like making a film documentary,” says Stephen Wangh, a collaborating writer and one of Kaufman’s former college professors. “You need dramatic action to happen. Large scale isn’t enough to tell a piece of history — you have to back it up by playwriting.”

Bitterness lingers

Complicating things is the still-controversial division of opinion on Jones and Jonestown, and the racial element: One of the guiding principles of Jonestown was that it was supposed to be completely without prejudice, and entirely equal in all things. It was a philosophy that earned Jones a sizable following among African-Americans.

Margo Hall, an interviewer, writer and actor on “People’s Temple,” was asked to gather information from the families of some of the black members of the temple, something that was more difficult than originally anticipated.

“Initially, I was interviewing African-American people who were part of the People’s Temple, and I got a lot of rejection,” she says. “A lot of African-Americans weren’t interested in talking, and I got a little discouraged since they (other interviewers) were having more success with white members. But I kept going, telling them we want to hear your voice; but I think part of it was a lot of them felt very exploited by what happened to them and their community.”

A number of black interview subjects simply looked at the play as a white project and were interested in finding out who the others involved were.

“‘Where’s Danny Glover?'” says Hall, recalling a typical reaction. “They were really worried about it being a white man’s story … so there were a lot of trust issues involved.”

And, since Jones’ insistence on equality was such a central issue to his story, many of the interviewers were still supporting, at the very least, the concept and philosophy of Jonestown, says Wangh — despite the horrific end.

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“In a way, it was the end of an era,” he says. “People who talk about the death of People’s Temple talk about it as the death of the communal movement, and gave up the hope of making utopias. The movement existed from the late ’60s until this, when all those people died in Guyana.”

Those voices, too, are heard in the play.

“One of the great draws of People’s Temple was the integration at all levels — prejudice just didn’t exist,” Wangh says. “A number of people (black and white) still say it was the best time of their lives. And for many poor blacks, it was a place where they could step into a world where black and white felt equal. Many of those who grew up in the rural South under terrible oppression found in People’s Temple a world unlike anything they ever lived before.”

Personal connections

For many, though, the pain of People’s Temple, with the deaths of the members, journalists covering Jonestown, and Congressman Leo Ryan, is still very much alive. Particularly in the Bay Area, many longtime residents still have connections with those somehow involved in the tragedy.

Hall, who grew up in Detroit, also feels very close to the Temple tragedy — one of her best childhood friends died in the jungle.

“Shirley and Marthea Hicks — their pictures were the ones they had in the Detroit newspapers when it happened,” she said. “I used to run and play tag with them. I went back and talked to one of their brothers, who was like an uncle to me. After it happened to them, it was all kind of hush-hush with the adults, so when I went back there to talk, it more or less completed the circle, even though the interviews were very painful and personal.”

Wangh was part of the Tectonic Project’s “Gross Indecency” and “Laramie,” but says this show is much larger and could easily be 14 or 15 different plays with the material that is available. Jones, he said, was a bit like Richard Nixon in the way he taped most things for the archives. There is even a tape of the parishioners dying after drinking the poison.

“If you listen, it is very dramatic in and of itself, but it doesn’t tell the story,” he says. “Making the play dramatic has a lot to do with intercutting and make this material into a drama. And you have to be careful not to get caught up in one person’s drama, so choosing material is very important.”

The play has thrust Berkeley Rep into a national spotlight. The Los Angeles Times recently did a piece on the upcoming show, and several other national media outlets have expressed interest in covering or reviewing the Jonestown story.

For the opening night performance, media response has been huge, and in addition to the normal Berkeley Rep invitation list, all of those who were interviewed for the story have been invited to opening night.

For Dower, the debut of the play will be a landmark near the end of a long and difficult journey. “I think the thing that most surprised me was how emotionally difficult working on the material itself would be,” he says. “It is very hard and humbling work, and I know Leigh and her crew weren’t prepared for how it would be. We have a huge responsibility.”

Dower recalls his wife, who is curating and processing the People’s Temple information for the California Historical Society. coming home from work after a particularly difficult day.

“She’d been working with the material for a year,” he says. “And the difficult day came when it occurred to her that no matter what she did and how careful she was with the material, the people still die in the end. I think part of her had been working to save them.”

Pat Craig is the Times theater critic.

Contra Costa Times – Entertainment section

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