Towards the end of The People’s Temple the play’s 12 performers randomly pick up photographs from a table. Each photograph is of one of the 918 people who died at Jonestown, the socialist-religious community in Guyana, on November 18 1978. The photographs are affixed to filing boxes arranged on metal shelving across the stage of Berkeley Rep, a theatre just outside San Francisco. It is a chilling but incomplete memorial. Many of the dead are still missing, their faces and stories lost. But each day new photographs arrive.
“Last night I found Ronaldo’s picture,” says Margo Hall, a writer and performer in The People’s Temple, as she remembers the previous evening’s performance. “He’s one of the youngsters I grew up with who went to Jonestown when he was 11 or 12. And I was like, oh my God, this is his picture. But I had to keep going, I had to get my costume on and go back out.”
Jonestown resonates throughout San Francisco: 400 unidentified victims of the massacre are buried in neighbouring Oakland; archives of the movement are kept in the city; survivors live nearby. But it is a dark part of the city’s – and the nation’s – history, one that, despite its notoriety, has been shunned. While rumours and cliches abound about the movement, about the charismatic figure of the Reverend Jim Jones, about the “mass suicide” in the jungle, the voices of those who went there have been muted.
These were the voices that interested Leigh Fondakowski, director and co-writer of The People’s Temple. She had just completed The Laramie Project, an oral reconstruction of the killing of a gay man in Wyoming, when she was approached with the idea of doing something similar for the People’s Temple, the most common name given to the community, founded by Jones in the late 1950s.
Fondakowski’s interest was piqued, she says, by “the little pieces of the untold story: that it was a black movement, that it was a political movement. I became interested in how the whole history of this movement became fixated on the Kool Aid and the bodies in the jungle.”
Hundreds of People’s Temple members had gone to the jungle of Guyana with Jones to establish Jonestown, a utopian community incorporating elements of socialist and religious dogma. But as pressures mounted, the experiment collapsed, and Jones ordered the deaths of his followers. They were given a cheap generic version of the soft drink Kool Aid laced with cyanide: some meekly drank the poison; some resisted and were executed. Some, around 80, survived, and it is through their voices that Fondakowski has sought to capture the story of Jonestown.
“Our main purpose was to make a piece that showed that the people in the movement had agency,” she says, “that they weren’t blind sheep, [nor] just brainwashed followers of Jones. And it was important to them, too.”
Stephan Jones knows more than most about Jonestown. The only son of Jim and Marceline Jones, he was a rebellious 19-year-old in 1978, flouting the authority of his father by refusing to go back to Jonestown and instead staying in the capital Georgetown with, of all things, the People’s Temple basketball team.
For Jones, a tall, angular man who sells office furniture, the prospect of creating a piece of theatre from the oral testimonies offered an opportunity to make something worthwhile out of the tragedy. “There have been many, many people who have come with all sorts of projects in mind as a way of making money on this story,” he says, “but I came to this place where I felt that if you wanted to do anything of worth it would be through the stories of the people.
“You can take something that’s been hailed as tragic or horrific or weird and turn it into something of real worth and value, and shift the meaning of the death of people in Jonestown. They were offering not only a way to tell people’s stories but also to make them more accessible, because when there’s someone up there on that stage, flesh and blood, it is a powerful way to do it.”
Although the People’s Temple is known for the events at Jonestown, the movement was founded some 20 years earlier in Indianapolis. For several years Jim Jones led his followers across the US before settling in Ukiah, California, in 1965. There, the People’s Temple became part of the local political scene, proselytising among poor African-American communities.
But, says Jones, the narcissism driving his father was never far below the surface. “We were ruled, subjugated, manipulated by a very sick man. Anything we were saying or doing was tainted by that. I was behind the scenes and I saw from much earlier on it was pretty crazy. His number one driving force,” he says of his father, “was adulation – he needed it like a drug. That’s why things went so downhill so quickly in Jonestown. One, he couldn’t hide his madness; two, his source [of people] was finite.”
Jones is adamant that the egalitarian rhetoric was just that, rhetoric: “Jim Jones did some good stuff but the closest definition of evil was going on at the same time. And don’t be fooled by the good stuff, that’s a big problem with the Temple. It was a social movement for a lot of people, but they were in denial at the same time.”
Eugene Smith has spent most of his adult life denying his past, shutting off his memories. Now in his late 40s, Smith was a teenager when he went to Jonestown. His mother, wife and two children died in Guyana. He returned home to California. His voice falters as he attempts to explain the days that have defined his life.
“After the incident I was unable to retrieve any photographs of my family,” he says, “so for the last 27 years I haven’t had any photos of that time of my life. There’s been a blank right there. I chose not to discuss it because there was nothing to share. It was my tragedy in a certain sense.”
His reluctance to talk was shaped by the reception he received on his return from Guyana. “When we landed at JFK people were beating on the walls and screaming at us. That was my first thought at being back in the US: these people hate me. I made it a point right there: I’m never going to talk about this.”
Smith even refused to talk about what happened in Jonestown with his family. But last year a researcher at the California Historical Society put him in touch with Fondakowski and Hall. That interview, he says, “was the first time I’d ever sat down and just told about it”.
What he had to tell is emblematic of the conundrum that surrounds Jonestown: why did these people go to Guyana, and why did they die?
“The one common thread,” says Smith, “is that people wanted a better society and they wanted a society based not on what your last name is, not based on your ethnic origin or your cultural background but based on who you are as a person, and what you’re willing to contribute to make it better not just for yourself but for the people around you.”
Smith’s mother, a religious African-American woman in search of a helping hand with her wayward son, was drawn to Jones’s credo of equality and spirituality. As a teenager growing up in the nondescript Californian city of Fresno, Smith was attracted to the People’s Temple by its promise of instruction and adventure.
“If you were curious and you were a kid it was a candy store, a candy store of knowledge,” he says, recalling the print workshops and darkroom, the visits from dazzling, influential people including Jane Fonda and Jimmy Carter’s wife.
Ask him why he followed Jones to Guyana and Smith answers that his wife and mother were there, that he had little choice. But press him and he responds: “Truthfully, it was the adventure I had been waiting for all my life. I’m going to be in the jungle, I’m going to have a machete. I’m going to discover the New West.”
But the dream became tarnished. The charismatic leader became increasingly irrelevant as his followers got on with the day-to-day work of building a community from scratch, says Smith. As questions were asked about the community by relatives, fearful that their loved ones were being held against their will, so the pressure began to take its toll on the already unstable Jones. A visit by a US Congressman, Lee Ryan, asking questions on behalf of the families, was the last straw. Ryan was murdered as he tried to leave the settlement. His murder was followed by the mass poisoning.
Smith survived because he wasn’t in Jonestown on the fateful night. Instead he had been sent to the nearest town, Georgetown, to help unload shipments of supplies.
When he found out what had happened at the settlement, Smith says, “I just fell down and cried. Because I knew at that point my life was gone.” He kept his experiences to himself for 27 years, until Fondakowski and Hall arrived at his house to interview him.
“The next thing I knew there was going to be a character in the play based on myself,” he says. “If this play hadn’t happened this would have stayed hidden. I was so worried. I thought it would be like before, I thought there would be demonstrations outside the theatre.”
There may not have been demonstrations, but the team behind the play has been subject to other pressures. The sheer volume of material posed problems for the writers – and so did the close relationships they developed with the survivors.
“There’s a strong desire in the survivor community to influence the story,” says Greg Pierotti, a writer-performer in the piece. “These people have been dealing with the media for 25 years, and they’re very clear about what they think should be covered and what shouldn’t.”
“At one point, Leigh was being surrounded by the survivors,” says Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s artistic director. “It’s been my job to say this is a play, however therapeutic it might be for these people.” Watching the protracted birth of the play, Taccone felt the attempt to tell the story behind Jonestown was unbalancing the work. Documentary was getting the better of drama. “At one point we said to her, you’ve made it too tame, you’re being too nice. At the heart of this there’s a lot of insane behaviour that you cannot rationalise. It felt reverential.”
The play now at Berkeley Rep is still a work in progress. But it is a rough jewel, a heartbreaking story of conviction, delusion, betrayal and death. The organisers hope it will go on from Berkeley and even emulate the success of The Laramie Project. It is a powerful work that deserves to be seen.
The last word belongs to Stephan Jones: “The main thing that I’ve noticed,” he says when I ask him if the play has affected how he feels about his experience, “is that I feel freed of it, much freer of it. A lot of this has been about amends for me, about making right my wrongs. Everybody says you were 19, you couldn’t have done any better. Well, for the most part that’s not true.
“It’s been important for me to look back on my life and say where did I do harm and how can I do right. And a big part of that has been sharing with them as honestly as I can my experience of Jonestown, my wrongs, my motivations, and be willing to have that shared with people so that one, I can be free of it, and, two, maybe someone can identify and learn something from it.”
The People’s Temple is at Berkeley Rep, California, until June 5. Box office: 001 510 647 2949.
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