The ghastly Peoples Temple deaths shocked the world. Berkeley Rep takes on the challenge of coming to terms with it.
In the surreal days after the Nov. 18, 1978, self-destruction of the Peoples Temple in a South American jungle, Margo Hall was a kid in Detroit, hoping beyond hope that two boys she grew up with, Anthony Hicks, 12, and his brother, Romaldo, 13; their joyously musical mother, Marthea; and aunt, Shirley, were not among the 918 people who perished in Guyana.
“They all died,” Hall says. “I remember everybody in my house was sad for a long, long time.”
Now Hall, co-founder of San Francisco’s Campo Santo theater company at Intersection for the Arts, reaches back into that painful past as an actor and writer in Berkeley Repertory Theatre‘s much-anticipated world premiere of “The People’s Temple,” which opens Wednesday at the Roda Theatre.
“I play Marthea,” Hall says. “That’s very dear to me.”
Nearly four years after being commissioned by San Francisco’s Z Space Studio, the production, directed by Leigh Fondakowski of “The Laramie Project” fame, unveils the complex tapestry of the rise and fall of the Peoples Temple, whose demise remains a wound that goes deep in the Bay Area.
Founded by the Rev. Jim Jones in 1955 in Indianapolis, the temple started as a racially integrated and progressive utopia, but by the mid-’70s, the church, which had relocated to Northern California and grown politically powerful, became the focus of lawsuits by former members and their relatives, as well as investigations by the press over its treatment of members and practices such as faked healings. Claiming persecution, Jones moved his congregation to an agricultural settlement in Guyana called Jonestown. After several members defected after a visit by Bay Area Rep. Leo Ryan and the media, violence erupted and Jones ordered his flock to drink cyanide-laced punch in a mass suicide and murder. Nearly a thousand men, women and children were poisoned or shot to death. Among those who died were Ryan, three journalists and a defector, who were gunned down at a nearby airstrip as they were about to leave.
The world was horrified by Jonestown. But it was in San Francisco and Northern California that the Peoples Temple held sway as a religious and political phenomenon, and where the abomination of its final end seemed so much larger.
“There is a scar, a permanent trauma,” Fondakowski says.
Although the Peoples Temple tragedy, in the eyes of some, was all too soon eclipsed nine days later by the City Hall assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, Jonestown has nevertheless entered urban legend. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” has become shorthand for obsessive loyalty, and Jonestown endures in the image of bloated bodies, arms encircling each other, lying facedown in a jungle clearing.
Don’t look for that hellish vision in Fondakowski’s play.
“I don’t ever think we can erase that image,” she said during a recent interview between rehearsals. “It’s beyond anything people can fathom. But that’s not the purpose of the play. I want to stretch the capacity of the audience for empathy. I really want them to experience the people who joined this group not as the ‘other.’ “
Fondakowski, 35, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been in Berkeley since early March, ruthlessly polishing the production in her intense style. Pale and blond, with intense blue eyes, the director, dressed in casual jeans and a black zippered sweater, grasps a pen and rocks gently on her feet as she picks apart Act 2.
In it, a character playing San Francisco Chronicle reporter Julie Smith describes an interview with Jones at the temple, where, in a claustrophobic room filled with hanging plants, Jones confides, “You know, Julie, my wife has back problems and I can’t have sex.”
Fondakowski asks for another run-through, for the umpteenth time.
As a senior member of Moises Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project, the director-writer has pioneered the use of verbatim interviews, transcripts, media and literature to make art. She’s a good fit at Berkeley Rep, which likes docudrama. Indeed, she was lead writer of its “Laramie Project” in 2001.
Among those who saw the Berkeley Rep’s version were Z Space Artistic Director David Dower and his wife, Denice Stephenson, who at the time was archiving documents from the Peoples Temple for the California Historical Society. The two, as students at American University in Washington, D.C., had lived through the unfolding horrors of Jonestown with a classmate, Rebecca Moore, as she desperately tried to find out what happened there. Moore lost two sisters and a nephew in Guyana.
All these years, Dower had thought of mounting a theatrical production based on Jonestown. He never shook the feeling that the complexity of what happened at Jonestown “was lost in the collective memory over the years. It became this story about a bunch of cult crazies who basically followed a madman off the edge of a cliff.”
Seeing “Laramie,” he said, “gave me a sense of hope that there was a form and a group of artists with a style of working that could deliver the complexity of such a project.” The highly acclaimed “Laramie Project,” in which eight actors played dozens of characters, including themselves, was a spare but emotionally powerful work of art that, rather than reenacting the killing of Matthew Shepard, looked at the face of small-town America.
He called Fondakowski, and the ball started rolling. The other person Dower sought was the talented Hall, part of a collective of six actor- directors and designers at the Mission District’s Campo Santo, known for its socially relevant theater.
“From the beginning, both Leigh and I knew the project needed a Bay Area representative at its collaborative core,” Dower says.
Hall, who is married to actor Peter Callender and has a son, Brandon, 9, has diverse stage experience ranging from the American Conservatory Theater to Z Space’s Word for Word ensemble. Brimming with quiet energy, Hall has a dancer’s tautness of body and an arresting face, full of angles and shadows.
“When I heard from David, I hadn’t thought of this for a long time,” she says. “But I always wondered what happened to them. So I said, ‘Yeah, I want to do it.’ It’s been good to talk about it and get some closure. And this is the first play I’ve written. It’s been really great to learn from these guys.”
Like the “Laramie” project, “People’s Temple” — an apostrophe was added — is based on interviews. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Within a month of the brutal 1998 gay-bashing murder of Shepard, the Tectonic team flew to Wyoming to do the interviews. In 15 months, they had talked to 200 people.
By contrast, the “People’s Temple” project is in its fourth year, with far fewer — 75 to 80 — interview subjects scattered around the country, who were approached almost 25 years after a traumatic event that most wanted to forget.
“It was very different,” Fondakowski said.
Hall, who teamed up with “Laramie” veterans Greg Pierotti, its head writer, who also acts in the play, and Stephen Wangh, found it understandable that interviewers found it difficult to find subjects to talk to.
Especially African Americans, says Hall, who is black.
“A lot of black people died at Jonestown,” she said. “And a lot of black people won’t talk. They were so exploited in the temple, they didn’t want to be exploited again, and they thought, ‘Oh, it’s going to be the same white voices talking again.’ So we couldn’t get a lot of African American voices.”
Slowly, however, more people began to speak, convinced by the reputation and persistence of the “Laramie” team.
“It was a process of getting to know these people, so they could trust us with their stories,” says Fondakowski.
“In our process we have made some mistakes, and unfortunately we have alienated some people,” Fondakowski wrote in a 2003 online update on the play’s progress. “But overall, we think we have gathered an incredible body of material. And we have become enormously grateful to everyone who has welcomed us into their homes and opened their hearts to us.”
Some, like Eugene Smith, a black man who lost his mother, wife and child at Jonestown, told their stories for the first time.
“I’m tired of hiding my life,” says Smith, who is depicted in the play.
Those voices have long been missing in the story of Jonestown, Hall says.
“Toward the end, we started getting more African American voices, but it’s not totally even,” she says. “What does that say about the play? That white people are still driving the story. There’s a sadness in that. But it’s part of what we’re exploring in the play, the irony that they were led by a white man.”
Hall ended up interviewing Marthea Hicks’ brother, Rod. It was, she says, a “very special, very painful” experience.
“He kept asking me, ‘Were they there?’ ” Hall says. ” ‘Do you know if they died?’ “
Rod Hicks was never really sure because although the family received a body, he never believed it was Marthea’s.
Hall, who did not come to California until 1991 and did not know many of the details of Jonestown, found it heartbreaking to learn that three-quarters of Jonestown’s dead were African American.
“All these beautiful black people … you flip through all these books of photos and all you see are page after page of black faces,” says Hall. “That just stays with you.”
Pierotti, too, felt a heaviness.
Early on, he recalls, someone joked, “You’re about to be drawn into the Jonestown vortex.” Looking back, Pierotti acknowledges how “it just takes over. For me, just being in close contact with this material almost on a daily basis for an extended period of time has made me feel heavier in my life.
“It’s a challenge to work with the weight of it. It has, at times, darkened my view. But this play could be a counterbalance, creating something joyful, light, healing, a reconciliation. It would be worth the weight of it.”
THE PEOPLES TEMPLE
The People’s Temple: Wednesday through May 29 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, at 2015 Addison St., Berkeley.
Z Space Studio, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the California Historical Society and Heyday Books present the following free public events:
2 p.m. April 30: “Before and After Jonestown: The Peoples Temple Collection at the California Historical Society,” a presentation of papers and photographs of the temple archives. 678 Mission St. (at Third Street), San Francisco.
7 p.m. May 2: “Page to Stage,” a conversation on the making of “The People’s Temple,” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. 5 p.m. May 7: “When the Media Makes History,” a conversation about investigative reporting and the media’s impact on the public perception of tragic events, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. 2 p.m. May 14: “People’s Temple: In the Context of the Times,” a discussion of how the temple reflected the political and popular culture of the 1960s and ’70s, at the California Historical Society.
12:30 p.m. May 15: “Art and Memory Dialogue,” a discussion about Peoples Temple, the Japanese American internment and the massacre of Native Californians, at the Taube Center for Jewish Life, 3200 California St., San Francisco.
5 p.m. May 21: “Beyond Belief: Religious Commitment and Extremism,” a discussion of how religious activism has changed in the past 50 years, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
5 p.m. May 28: “Living History and the Theatre,” a dialogue about the process of turning real-life events into art, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. 2 p.m. June 4: “Being History: Personal Perspectives on Peoples Temple,” a conversation with former temple members and an exploration of the challenges facing archivists who work with living history, at the California Historical Society.
Information: (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.