It's hard to forget the horrifying images that emerged from the tragedy at Jonestown, Guyana, on Nov. 18, 1978. More than 900 people committed suicide or were killed in that remote jungle settlement created by the Peoples Temple of San Francisco, led by the Rev. Jim Jones. Most of them died after swallowing cyanide-laced Kool Aid, and others were shot.
More than 27 years have passed, yet crucial questions remain unanswered. How could people have been so devoted to Jones? Why did they die? How did he amass such emotional sway over people?
Writer-director Leigh Fondakowski explores those issues in "The People's Temple," being given its world premiere by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in association with San Francisco's Z Space Studio. Fondakowski and her collaborators -- Greg Pierotti, Stephen Wangh and Margo Hall, working with researcher/archivist Denice Stephenson -- pored through thousands of pages of writings and interviews of people who had knowledge of the Peoples Temple and its members. (Fondakowski and her collaborators at the Tectonic Theatre Project used similar techniques to create "The Laramie Project," the wrenching story of a gay man, Matthew Shepard, killed in Laramie, Wyo.)
The result is a powerful, exceedingly well crafted theater piece that still doesn't answer some of the most fundamental questions, but it provides deep insight and puts a human face on the tragedy. Twelve actors create a variety of people who were involved in some way.
Sarah Lambert's set places the action in an archive where a couple dozen storage shelves hold cardboard file boxes. The actors roll the shelves around to create various settings and retrieve costume items from the boxes to create their characters. The action begins in the late '50s in Indianapolis, where segregation was still the order of the day. An established Pentecostal church invites the charismatic Jones to become its pastor, but he insists that people of all races must be welcome. When the church elders reaffirm their whites-only policy, he starts his own church, Peoples Temple. It welcomes all races and economic groups, especially poor blacks. It espouses socialistic rather than capitalistic principles. Rather than traditional hymns, the congregation sings rousing, joyous spirituals (cast member Miche Braden also serves as musical director). It feeds the poor and hosts radio and TV programs. It grows and grows.
Then one day Jones reads an Esquire magazine article about the 10 safest places in the United States in the event of a nuclear attack. One of those places is Mendocino County in Northern California, so he and more than 100 members of his flock move there in 1965. As the church grows, it expands to Los Angeles and San Francisco and later becomes headquartered in San Francisco. Membership reaches more than 2,500. People are drawn to the church because of its egalitarian principles, its music, its interracial congregation, Jones' purported healings, his charisma.
Prominent local and state politicians curry its favor, for Jones can marshall hundreds of people for a cause seemingly within minutes. But every so often, someone voices a doubt, a criticism: One man reveals that eavesdropping, not ESP, is responsible for Jones' knowing that he put his last 67 cents into the collection plate. Another man suggests that Jones always wears sunglasses and keeps his office cold because he's on speed.
Still, when Jones decides to establish a utopian community in Guyana, church members enthusiastically clear the jungle and build the facilities necessary for several hundred people to live off the land. Yet more doubts creep in with allegations of beatings, anguish at the separation of children from their parents. It's like a cult. The second act focuses on the events leading to the Jonestown massacre, including the fateful congressional fact-finding inquiry by U.S. Rep. Leo J. Ryan. He was responding to constituents' concerns that relatives were being mistreated or held against their will in Jonestown.
In both her writing and her directing, Fondakowski carefully paces the action and the emotional arc, interspersing the dialogue with songs like "What the World Needs Now (Is Love, Sweet Love)," "This Little Light of Mine" and others, ending with "Walk a Mile in My Shoes." The actors readily differentiate their characters with each one resonating strongly. Besides musical director Braden and writers Hall and Pierotti, they include Velina Brown, James Carpenter, Colman Domingo, Robert Ernst, Lauren Klein, John McAdams, Barbara Pitts, Kelli Simpkins and Adam Wade. Costumes are by Gabriel Berry, lighting by Betsy Adams and sound by Jake Rodriguez.
It's a brilliant theatrical work, one that deserves wide attention both for its craft and for its examination of a traumatic chapter in recent American history.
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