The People’s Temple
Written by Leigh Fondakowski with Greg Pierotti, Stephen Wangh and Margo Hall
Directed by Leigh Fondakowski
In association with Z Space Studio
Main Season · Roda Theatre
April 15–June 5, 2005
Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is proud to stage the world premiere of The People’s Temple, a theatrical exploration of the roots, the rise and the tragic demise in Jonestown, Guyana of the movement led by the Reverend Jim Jones. The show—which emphasizes moving forward rather than looking back—is directed by Leigh Fondakowski, best known for her work on The Laramie Project, a groundbreaking play that received its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep in 2001. As head writer for Laramie, Fondakowski led her collaborators in sculpting interviews with Wyoming residents into a stirring portrait of the effects of hatred on a small town. Her newest work explores the unique mix of radical politics, racial integration and Pentecostal fervor that attracted thousands of followers to Peoples Temple and its leader, Jim Jones.
A tale of faith, community and survival, the show spans 25 years of Temple history—which culminated in 1978 with 914 deaths at the jungle settlement known as Jonestown, the assassination of Congressman Leo J. Ryan and the murders of three journalists. The play weaves together gospel music from the Temple, archival materials and interviews with survivors to create a conversation between the living and the dead. After decades enshrouded in secrecy, the stories of Jonestown survivors are now being told, many for the first time. In its quest to make sense of the inexplicable—and perhaps to find healing in the process—The People’s Temple explores this historic event with a candor only hindsight can provide.
Leigh Fondakowski · Playwright and Director
Denice Stephenson · Researcher and Archivist
Sarah Lambert · Scenic Design
Gabriel Berry · Costume Design
Betsy Adams · Lighting Design
Jake Rodriguez · Sound Design
Martha Swetzoff · Video Design
Jean Isaacs · Movement
Michael Suenkel · Stage Manager
Greg Pierotti · Head Writer
Margo Hall · Collaborating Writer
Stephen Wangh · Collaborating Writer
Kelli Simpkins · Dramaturg
Miche Braden · Musical Director
Alan Filderman · Casting
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Eddie Kurtz · Assistant Director
Angela Nostrand · Assistant to the Director
Carole Deutch · Ancillary Events Coordinator
Leslie M. Radin · Production Assistant
Miche Braden · Hyacinth Thrash / Woman in White / Deanna Wilkinson / Ensemble
Velina Brown · Elsie Bell / Nell Smart / Ollie Smith / Ensemble
James Carpenter · Tim Carter / Rev. Jim Jones / Rev. John Moore / Ensemble
Colman Domingo · Jim Jones, Jr. / Eugene Smith / Ensemble
Robert Ernst · Phil Tracy / Leo J. Ryan / Ensemble
Margo Hall · Zipporah Edwards / Shanette Oliver / Janet Williamson / Marthea Hicks / Donetter Lane / Ensemble
Lauren Klein · Liz Forman Schwartz / Claire Janaro / Barbara Moore / Neva Sly / Ensemble
John McAdams · Jack Beam / Stephan Jones / Rev. Jim Jones / Ensemble
Greg Pierotti · Garry Lambrev / Dick Tropp / Vernon Gosney / Mike Touchette / Ensemble
Barbara Pitts · Meredith Reese / Mickey Touchette / Julie Smith / Ensemble
Kelli Simpkins · Juanita Bogue / Annie Moore / Grace (Stoen) Jones / Laura Kohl / Ensemble
Adam Wade · Hue Fortson / Odell Rhodes / Mervyn Dymally / “Pop” Jackson / Rod Hicks / Ensemble
“One of the most penetrating and significant works of the season…Turns the theatre into a temple of community healing.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Astounding…True genius!”—Contra Costa Times
“What you don’t expect is the joy…that’s what comes through.”—Oakland Tribune
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Jonestown. The very word evokes a series of volatile images: Kool Aid, the jungle, hundreds of dead bodies, a congressional delegation being shot at while attempting to board a plane, the eyes of Jim Jones hidden behind his omnipresent sunglasses…
While it may be easy for us to conjure up one or more of these harrowing pictures, the larger history of Peoples Temple remains buried in mystery, part of our collective memory that is shrouded in half-truths and untold stories. Coming as it did only one week before the sensational assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the tragic end to the Peoples Temple movement in Guyana was superseded in many ways by the tragedy at City Hall.
Now, almost thirty years later, the larger story is being re-examined, re-discovered and re-considered on our stage. Leigh Fondakowski, along with members of the Tectonic Theatre Company and seminal artists from the Bay Area, has spent the better part of three years conducting interviews and researching the history of Peoples Temple. What they have unearthed is a complicated and fascinating web of stories that are both consistently revelatory and surprisingly relatable. And like any good drama, a far more complicated truth lies below the surface of our initial impressions.
The story, as it turns out, is ultimately not about a fringe lunatic movement whose desire to renounce any sense of individual responsibility resulted in disaster. Rather, the tale is about all of us who seek to build a better community, who seek to improve our lives and the lives of our families, who seek a higher or larger meaning in a world fraught with instability and fear.
Tonight, we gather in the theatre with much the same purpose as those who created Peoples Temple: a group of loosely like-minded souls seeking to be transported by the events onstage to a different level of experience, one which illuminates our spirits, minds and bodies. We hope that the public revelation of these stories, set in a decidedly artistic context, will help move us to better understand ourselves, our neighbors and our shared history.
The People’s Temple was written through a unique collaboration made possible by Z Space Studio in San Francisco. David Dower, artistic director of Z Space, offered me a commission to develop the play to mark the 25th Anniversary of Jonestown. As I began to investigate the story, I quickly realized that the scope of this project was too large for one person to undertake alone. I enlisted a team of writers to work with me: Greg Pierotti as my main collaborator, with Stephen Wangh and Margo Hall.
During the three-and-a-half-year long development of the play, members of the writing team and I traveled the country interviewing former members of Peoples Temple, relatives of those who died in Jonestown, journalists, scholars, public officials, attorneys and community activists.
We transcribed and edited the interviews, then conducted several workshops in which the members of the writing team and the acting company presented material. As the volume of material continued to grow, the writing team worked closely with me to conduct additional research and collaborate on the writing of the play.
Meanwhile, archivist Denice Stephenson, whose work in the Peoples Temple Collection at the California Historical Society began a few months ahead of ours, became the play’s researcher/archivist. As she processed the enormous collection of materials at CHS, she contributed many compelling documents to our body of material and was an essential part of our team.
The California Historical Society in San Francisco holds the official records of Peoples Temple as well as individual collections of documents, personal papers and photographs. While working in the collection, we reviewed legal documents, correspondence, memos, financial and membership records, government documents, news clippings and thousands of photographs of Peoples Temple members in the U.S. and in Jonestown. Among the many papers were oral histories of Jonestown residents and manuscripts about the history of Peoples Temple that Richard Tropp and other Temple members were assembling in Jonestown in 1978.
We also listened to audiotapes of church services, media broadcasts, meetings in Jonestown and communications between the U.S. and Guyana that Temple members recorded. Hundreds of these audiotapes, often referred to as the “FBI tapes,” and more than 36,000 pages of Peoples Temple papers were collected in the immediate aftermath of the Jonestown tragedy and turned over to the FBI for its investigation of the death of Congressman Leo J. Ryan. These materials were eventually released to researchers under the Freedom of Information Act. The Jonestown Institute provided us with copies and transcripts of these tapes.
The people we interviewed also shared personal papers, photographs, film footage and books with us. These shared materials along with the interviews and archival documents became the source material for the play.
We are most grateful to the survivor community for opening their hearts and minds to us. Without their contribution, trust and continued support, this play would not have been possible.
A note on the survivors
On November 18, 1978, 918 people died in a remote jungle in Guyana, South America: one was a United States Congressman, three were journalists, 914 were residents of the Peoples Temple agricultural mission known as Jonestown. Although our recollections of the tragedy in Jonestown often hold the impression that all the members of Peoples Temple died in Guyana, there were survivors.
In Guyana, more that eighty Peoples Temple members survived—a group of Jonestown residents left the community early that day long before the poison was prepared, several residents left Jonestown as the deaths were taking place, two elderly people hid and survived, another group of Peoples Temple members who were with Congressman Ryan survived the shooting at the airstrip, members who were on boats survived as did the members who were living in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana where Peoples Temple owned a large residence. The survivors in Georgetown included Jonestown basketball team players and Jonestown residents who were seeking medical services in the city.
In the U.S., hundreds of Peoples Temple members remained—some with packed suitcases ready to travel to Jonestown. Others were not planning to move to Guyana, but continued their work with Peoples Temple. Still others were no longer active members of Peoples Temple but had relatives in Guyana and followed the group closely.
Most of the survivors who have contributed their stories to Leigh and her collaborators consented to having their names used in this production. Several of them—many who have spoken for the first time about their history with Peoples Temple—asked if they could share their stories without publication of their names. With respect and appreciation for their contributions and their privacy, this production reflects their wishes.
He’s Able: People’s Temple Choir
In the summer of 1973, Peoples Temple released its first “stereo album” featuring a mixture of choral, gospel and pop songs. Their band and choirs recorded the album He’s Able in Los Angeles and produced a 12 inch LP at Brotherhood Records in San Francisco. Peoples Temple originally sold He’s Able for $6.50 after their services and for $7.00 by mail order. The choir posed for the album’s cover in front of Portals of the Past at Lloyd Lake in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Leigh and her collaborators worked with this rare album to incorporate seven of the twelve songs in The People’s Temple. The play also includes recorded pop, jazz and rock music performed by the Jonestown Express, the Peoples Temple band in Guyana.
1859 Geary Boulevard
In September 1972, Peoples Temple held a dedication ceremony for their new San Francisco church at 1859 Geary Boulevard near Fillmore Street. They renovated the building after a fire in 1973 and officially moved their headquarters to San Francisco from Redwood Valley in Mendocino County by 1976. Dozens of members, including Jim and Marceline Jones’ family, lived in small apartments and dormitory rooms on the upper floors. After the Jonestown tragedy, Peoples Temple properties, including this large church, were put up for sale and auction. In 1980, the Korean Central Presbyterian Church bought the abandoned building. The church was torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. A post office now occupies the site.
A note on the name of the group
Soon after incorporating a small church called Wings of Deliverance in Indiana in 1955, the church’s members changed its name to Peoples Temple. Ten years later in California, Peoples Temple filed incorporation and other legal papers as Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, a denomination with which the church was affiliated. Although Peoples Temple members themselves, the media and government agencies have referred to the organization as both Peoples Temple and People’s Temple, sometimes interchangeably within the same documents, the proper name of the organization known as Peoples Temple does not include the apostrophe. Even the signs posted on the church buildings were not consistent—the 1969 hand lettered sign atop the church in Redwood Valley includes the apostrophe in the name of the church, while the sign in front of the San Francisco church does not. From 1976–1978 when Peoples Temple published and distributed their newspaper Peoples Forum, they dropped the apostrophe from use in their publications. In Guyana, Peoples Temple incorporated as the Peoples Temple Christian Church Company Limited.
The play’s title, The People’s Temple, is meant to distinguish the theatrical event from the name of the group itself.
A brief chronology
Jim and Marceline Jones and a small group of parishioners establish Peoples Temple, an independent Pentecostal church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Peoples Temple conducts food drives, opens a “free restaurant” that serves thousands of meals to the city’s poor, operates nursing homes and hosts weekly television and radio programs featuring their integrated choir. The church becomes affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination.
The Jones family and more than one hundred Peoples Temple members move to Mendocino County in Northern California.
Peoples Temple builds a new church with a swimming pool, an animal shelter, gardens and a community kitchen in Redwood Valley, a small rural community eight miles north of Ukiah. Church membership grows to three hundred.
Peoples Temple begins holding services in San Francisco and Los Angeles and later opens large churches in both cities.
Recruiting drives in African American communities increase the church’s membership to over twenty-five hundred. Peoples Temple votes to establish an agricultural and rural development mission in Guyana, South America.
Members travel to Guyana to secure a location for the mission, establish headquarters in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, and begin clearing land in the jungle for farming and building. The plans include farm buildings, a large communal kitchen, medical facilities, schools, dormitory style housing, small cabins and a day care center—all constructed around a large open-air pavilion.
Peoples Temple officially moves its headquarters from Redwood Valley to San Francisco where members establish dozens of communal residences, become active in city politics and publish their own newspaper, Peoples Forum. Mayor George Moscone appoints Jim Jones to the San Francisco Housing Authority. The Peoples Temple agricultural mission in Guyana becomes known as Jonestown.
Former members and relatives organize the Concerned Relatives and Citizens Committee to protest Jim Jones’s treatment of church members. Child custody issues and living conditions in the Guyana mission were at the center of the conflict. Media coverage of Peoples Temple practices and political activities lead to government investigations of the church’s financial and social welfare programs. Hundreds of Peoples Temple members, including Jim Jones, move to Guyana.
California Congressman Leo J. Ryan organizes a fact-finding mission to Jonestown which ends in tragedy: on November 18, Ryan, three journalists and a Peoples Temple member are killed by armed Temple members, more than nine hundred Jonestown residents die from poison and four members die in Georgetown. Nine days later, in an unrelated event, a former city supervisor kills Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in San Francisco’s City Hall.
Peoples Temple assets are frozen and placed under the supervision of the San Francisco Superior Court. Congress holds a hearing about the death of Congressman Ryan.
Over $1.8 billion in claims are filed against the Peoples Temple estate. After overseeing the burial of hundreds of unclaimed and unidentified bodies from Jonestown, the court recovers and disburses $13 million in assets. Peoples Temple is dissolved and its records are reposited at the California Historical Society.
Larry Layton is the only Peoples Temple member to be tried and convicted of conspiring to kill Congressman Ryan.