For years, Eugene Smith hid his story. The former Peoples Temple member had only escaped the tragedy of Jonestown by circumstance. While he was doing temple work in Guyana’s capital, his mother, wife, adopted daughter and son all died in the Rev. Jim Jones’ jungle encampment, along with more than 900 others in the 1978 mass suicide.
Although it’s been more than a quarter century, Smith is talking about the ordeal only now after a trip to a little-known San Francisco basement archive in search of photos of his deceased loved ones.
He found more than images of friends and family. “It’s been a catharsis,” said the East Bay man, now 47. And he began telling his story and assisting Denice Stephenson, a volunteer archivist helping the California Historical Society organize the temple materials, including 10,000 photos.
The once-obscure archives, mostly letters and photos stored in some 170 boxes, have recently been sought out by survivors, family members and the public. As a result, they are growing.
The collection has led to a new play, “The People’s Temple,” which opened Wednesday night at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. An archive exhibition and the play focus on the temple’s members, many of them black and from poor and working-class Bay Area families, more than Jones, who drew them to the jungle with the promise of an egalitarian utopia.
It is partially based on the archive’s voluminous materials, which have been collected over two decades from a variety of sources, including Jones’ son Stephan, who lives in Marin County. The play incorporates stagings based on archival photos and letters as well as dozens of interviews playwrights conducted with survivors, including Smith and Stephan Jones, to create a portrait of the people who died Nov. 18, 1978, and those who survived.
Once ashamed of his association with the temple, Smith said he kept coming back and helping with the archives to humanize those who died.
“It puts a face on it. You don’t see piles of bloated bodies on pavilion walks. You see grandmothers, sisters, just regular folks.”
Some two decades ago, a court approved the historical society as repository for temple materials after lawsuits stemming from the tragedy ended. For years, the materials were used primarily by authors and researchers.
There are volumes of letters, photographs, trinkets, government documents, eyewitness accounts at the airfield murder of Rep. Leo Ryan of San Mateo, the event that precipitated the mass suicide, and taped sermons, including the final one of Jim Jones.
Among the more chilling artifacts is the 43-minute tape on which Jones encourages his congregation first to have their children drink cyanide-laced punch and then to drink it themselves. He admonishes those who can be heard crying and screaming, and then he orders: “Bring the vat with Green C in. Please? Bring it in so the adults can begin.”
While searching the archive, Smith found many family photos, even images of friends he’d forgotten about, but sadly, none of his then-newborn son.
Interpreting the Peoples Temple is still a controversial undertaking.
The archives are full of letters describing both happy communal times and pleas for help to leave, many photos of smiling members at picnics and basketball games and a bulletproof vest believed to have been owned by Jones.
In one letter, a 12-year-old originally from San Francisco wrote that she liked the “sweet-and-sour punch” and big bananas in her new “Freedom land,” but asked for six packs of gum. She died 15 months later, after drinking poisoned punch, on her 14th birthday.
“Whether you call them murders or suicides, they are deaths,” said Stephenson. The archives “lay out the facts and let the research continue.” In conjunction with the play’s premiere, Stephenson edited a new book of archive materials, “Dear People: Remembering Jonestown.”
Stephenson took on the archivist job after a college friend, Rebecca Moore, who lost two sisters and a nephew at Jonestown, asked her to check on records her family had given to the society.
“People don’t take current history very seriously,” said Moore, an associate professor of religious studies at San Diego State University who runs the most comprehensive Web site on the tragedy, http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/. “Peoples Temple needs to be understood in the historical context of the radical movements of the ’60 and ’70s.”
After she began the archiving project in late 2000, Stephenson and her husband, David Dower, who heads San Francisco’s Z Space Studio, went to see Berkeley Rep’s “The Laramie Project,” which used interviews in the recounting of the 1998 murder of a gay college student in Wyoming. Dower then called Leigh Fondakowski, the play’s director, about a Jonestown treatment.
Yet, Smith isn’t sure he’ll see the play, which runs through May 29.
“I’ve lived it. I’ve spoken about it. I don’t know if I need to see it.”