The 1978 mass suicide of 914 U.S. religious cult members in the Guyana jungle was a news event so high-profile that public awareness was compared to that following the Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings. Then as now, this catastrophic ending tended to obliterate the not-entirely-sinister story preceding it. “Laramie Project” head writer Leigh Fondakowski’s “The People’s Temple” again deploys a stage docudrama format to powerfully chart the title church’s path from grassroots idealism to paranoid self-immolation.
While the local success of this Berkeley Rep premiere was inevitable — the Bay Area being the Temple’s erstwhile operating and recruitment base — its timely themes of sectarian extremism and violence should draw interest from theaters far and wide.
Team-assembled from original documents, correspondence, survivor testimonies and the Temple’s own library of members’ oral histories (now collected at the California Historical Society), “The People’s Temple” is an intricate yet chronologically straightforward account that encompasses its subject’s many contradictions.
As with “The Laramie Project,” this isn’t so much about an infamous act and its notorious central figures — Rev. Jim Jones being in fact a somewhat shadowy figure here — but rather about a whole community whose presumed moral character is challenged in the worst possible way. Unlike “Laramie,” the new work mercifully omits any mediating element between audience and the facts at hand. Actors cast in multiple roles exclusively portray real people, with no need to “play” themselves conveying how painful it was to research such a “difficult” topic.
Fondakowski’s nimble production juggles myriad viewpoints and evokes numerous settings on a stage empty of all adornment save two temple-roof outlines and various objects on wheels (notably a dozen institutional shelves stacked high with boxes containing PT paperwork/memorabilia).
After a brief, foreshadowing prelude, the saga commences with Jones’ early 1960s leadership of an Indianapolis Pentecostal church and his purported miraculous healing powers. But his unflinchingly progressive policy toward racial segregation proved too controversial for the area. By 1965 the Jones family and more than 100 loyal followers moved to Northern California’s Mendocino County.
Aided by the Rev’s many TV and radio appearances, plus ever-increasing street outreach, the fold rapidly increased. Its brash and forward-looking tenor was in sync with the times: Jones & Co. harnessed the energy of youth movements and joyful service of old-time gospel, decried institutionalized poverty and prejudice, espoused socialist ideals and communal living.
But with increasing power his message grew somewhat distorted, producing such reckless statements as, “Believe in only what you can see. You see me — I am your God.” Families of those who’d been sucked (along with their personal assets) Moonie-style into the People’s embrace began to smell a cult. Even as the Temple’s good works and glad-handing made it a political force to be reckoned with, investigative reporters were poking into allegations of financial misconduct, drug use, beatings and forced sleep deprivation.
By then daft enough to believe the KKK might “get him at any time,” Jones and hundreds of followers virtually fled overnight in 1977 to the remote settlement — “Jonestown” –they’d begun building in South America’s Guyana three years earlier.
The late-1978 mass deaths were triggered when nervous reception of a fact-finding mission by Congressman Leo J. Ryan — sussing out possible child-custody violations, among other matters — led to the murder of him and three journalists. Panicked, Jones ordered everyone to “take the potion like they did in ancient Greece.” Among the survivors was Jones’ sole biological son (he adopted several children), one of the most anguished reminiscing voices here.
A 12-member cast deftly etches dozens of distinct personalities, from the elderly Berkeley couple who lost all their children in Jonestown to then-exhilarated but now rueful or deceased followers. Further diffusing character focus, two actors take turns playing Jones himself, seen primarily as others saw him — a dynamic if sometimes bizarre public speaker.
Indeed, “The People’s Temple’s” most striking achievement may be its vivid evocation of Jones’ and the church’s magnetism. Their utopian vision for a new American society seemed so genuine that the majority of converts were African-Americans whose ongoing civil-rights struggles might well have rendered suspect any other gift given by a white man.
The only thing slowing down a long but otherwise sharply paced and directed evening is the large amount of gospel and inspirational-pop (i.e., “What the World Needs Now”) singing. It’s contextually apt — and well executed, particularly by frequent lead belter Miche Braden — but still seems rather too much of a good thing, trotted out whenever we need reminding that the “evil” PT had its godly good times, too.