Powerful drama…

Powerful drama, remarkable cast transform Jonestown grief into ‘Temple’ of healing at Berkeley Rep

The People’s Temple: Docudrama. By Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Stephen Wangh and Margo Hall. Directed by Fondakowski. (Through May 29. Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Two hours, 55 minutes. Tickets $20-$5

“In your life, you never want to get involved in a story in which hundreds of children die,” says one of the journalists who covered the Peoples Temple tragedy of the ’70s. We have to find ways of dealing with such events, though, especially ones that have afflicted our own community. The unique power of theater to explore compelling stories as a communal experience is profoundly and movingly at work in “The People’s Temple” at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre.

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The words are based on documents and interviews with survivors and relatives of those who died in the mass suicide-massacre at Jonestown in 1978. The voices fill the theater with hope, regret, faith, skepticism, joy, anger, suspicion, panic and immeasurable sorrow. As created by director Leigh Fondakowski and her remarkable crew, “Temple” is gripping drama and a forcefully honest re-examination of our own history that turns the theater into a temple of community healing.

The world premiere that opened Wednesday is “The Laramie Project” of Jonestown, both in aspiration and concentrated theatricality. That it’s taken so much longer to put together than the docudrama about the murder of Matthew Shepard — or the ones about the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk that occurred soon after Jonestown (Emily Mann’s “Execution of Justice” at the Rep in ’85) — is a testament to the horrendous scope of the Jonestown tragedy. The delay in no way detracts from the play’s immediacy.

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“Temple” was the brainchild of Z Space Studio Artistic Director David Dower, who commissioned “Laramie” head writer Fondakowski to take a similar approach to the Peoples Temple story (the apostrophe in the title is meant, in part, to distinguish the play from the actual church). Fondakowski enlisted co- “Laramie” veterans Greg Pierotti (as head writer) and Stephen Wangh, and local actress Margo Hall to put the script together with research help from Denice Stephenson, Dower’s wife and the Peoples Temple Collection archivist at the California Historical Society (her “Dear People,” an anthology of letters and other Jonestown documents from Heyday Books, was released to coincide with the production).

It’s taken three years to develop the play — a Rep-Z Space co- production — and changes were still being made through last weekend. All that effort has paid off in one of the most penetrating and significant works of the season.

The story unfolds chronologically and is staged with stark simplicity by Fondakowski in a somber forest of racks full of hundreds of cardboard boxes, like a cross between a library and a morgue (the stunning set is by Sarah Lambert, with eloquent lighting by Betsy Adams). The 12-person cast, moving with ceremonial respect, retrieves artifacts and clothing from the boxes for the different characters’ stories, with Gabriel Berry’s costumes closely replicating the clothes in archival photographs.

A thoughtful, troubled Robert Ernst (co-founder of the influential, experimental Blake Street Hawkeyes) sets the inquiry in motion as journalist Phil Tracy, who co-wrote the first major Peoples Temple expose for New West with The Chronicle’s Marshall Kilduff (still of this paper). Tracy insists that the story can only be understood in the context of its hopeful, progressive, even heroic beginnings in the vehemently racist, segregated Indiana of the 1950s.

A folksy John McAdams plays Jack Beam, a Temple founding member who died at Jonestown, describing his awe and glee at fiery young preacher Jim Jones’ insistence on integrating his new Pentecostal congregation. McAdams (also of “Laramie”) reappears as a remarkably charismatic, dynamic Jones — and his quiet, reflective, heavily burdened son Stephan — as Jones’ ministry takes off with miraculous faith-healings, outreach to black communities and rousing spirituals (beautifully rendered by musical director Miche Braden, Mime Troupe mainstay Velina Brown and the ensemble).

Brown, Hall, Pierotti, James Carpenter, Colman Domingo, Lauren Klein and the rest of the cast skillfully depict many characters as Jones builds his church, moving the congregation to Mendocino County (because, Tracy sardonically reveals, of a piece he’d read in Esquire) and then to San Francisco, developing a huge following he parlayed into significant political capital. With a rhetoric that mixed Christianity and self-aggrandizement with utopian socialism and racial equality, Jones attracted a large number of poor and/or black congregants.

It’s an embarrassing cautionary tale for liberals and members of the press, many of whom helped Jones gain credibility or turned a blind eye to his increasingly oppressive, manipulative practices. Domingo is a point-perfect Willie Brown, as one of the liberal leaders (Moscone was another) praising Jones. Barbara Pitts, sharply effective in several roles, depicts the scary frustration of mystery writer Julie Smith, then a Chronicle reporter, trying to get some criticism of Jones into print.

But it was also liberals and the press who uncovered the chicanery, abuses and thuggery in the Temple — most notably with Tracy and Kilduff’s article, which led to Jones’ panicky removal of his church to its remote Jonestown settlement in Guyana. Fondakowski and the cast build a terrifying, thickening suspense as Rep. Leo Ryan (Ernst) leads the fatal fact-finding mission and dies in the ambush that also killed several journalists before Jones ordered the deaths of some 900 followers, including many children.

The deaths are heart-wrenching, especially as related by Carpenter, Domingo, Pierotti, Hall and Kelli Simpkins. So, too, are the attempts to understand in the aftermath, particularly in Carpenter and Klein’s portraits of former Glide pastor John Moore and his wife, longtime critics of Jones who lost two daughters and a grandchild in the massacre. But more than in its tragic impact, it’s in the depth and honesty of its inquiry that “Temple” achieves its provocative and restorative resonance — a dramatic fulfillment of the injunction of the closing spiritual, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.”


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The San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Apr. 22, 2005
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday April 22, 2005.
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