The stories of the more than 900 people who died in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, have been reduced to a cliché involving a powdered drink mix (one wonders, without irony, whether Kool-Aid's reputation ever fully recovered from such astonishingly bad publicity). The People's Temple sets out to rectify that historical wrong, and succeeds admirably. Ultimately, though, this production does not grab the audience's viscera with a sufficient evangelical fervor to communicate the faith and fervor that led to disaster.
Director Leigh Fondakowski headed up a team of writers and interviewers who pursued People's Temple survivors for firsthand stories. The result is this comprehensive oral history that convincingly explains the Temple's history of racial integration, radical egalitarian politics, and utopian ideals, background that makes all the more wrenching what follows, when Jones goes from mildly nutty to a fair approximation of darkness itself.
The dialogue (mostly monologues) is composed of these oral histories. The cast is compelled to act as a true ensemble--each actor plays several roles, moving from one to the next and back again, their identities established by costume or, when appearing for the first time, verbal introduction by another cast member. The approach will be familiar to those who've seen The Laramie Project, for which collaborative endeavor Fondakowski served as head writer.
The action takes place on a simple set of steel shelves and rows of white boxes, symbolizing the remnants of those who died in Guyana. It's a poignant visual reminder, because (with the exception of Jones) the voices we hear are of those who were lucky enough to survive the nightmare. Chief among them is adopted son Jim Jones Jr. (Colman Domingo), who recounts a quite funny story about discovering, well into his schooling years, that he was African American, and son Stephan Jones (John McAdams), burning with regret but also remembering that, for a while at least, he had the time of his life in Jonestown.
The play traces Jones's career from small-time preaching in Indianapolis to bigger gigs in California, beginning in Ukiah and eventually ending up in San Francisco. Along the way Jones picked up loyalists, mostly poor African Americans attracted to the Temple's inclusiveness, sense of purpose, and, it seems, the leader's messianic charisma. Chief among his followers in this show is Zipporah (Margo Hall), an elderly woman otherwise lost to history, who found beauty, meaning, and purpose following Jones, and who subsequently endured unknowable trials.
In laying out the details of Jones's operation, the play reveals a post-hippie demagogue of equal parts Tartuffe and Stalin. He produced chicken livers and claimed they were tumors he had plucked out of the ill. He had spies in the audience listen in on conversations, then had the information delivered to him as grist for ostensibly psychic revelations. And, after a time, he used beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual manipulation and abuse, and all sorts of intimidation to control his flock.
Meanwhile, he was becoming a political player in San Francisco (a real one, as Domingo's turn as Willie Brown attests). Soon enough, defectors from the Temple talked to the press (Mike Hartman plays a hard-ass but scarred reporter), and the resulting revelations started the process that led to the unfathomable end. We learn that about half of the Jonestown bodies were never claimed, and many were never identified. This reality alone is sobering enough to resonate long after the show.
Yet this production does not capture the abandon, the sublime mania, or the ego-surrendering frenzy of charismatic religion. There are a series of gospel numbers, but they're far too tame, and performed at too low a volume, for the audience to get a taste of the madness and glory of transcendence. This is no small complaint. The People's Temple, in its time, felt it had located a holy realm of intersection between Marxism and Christianity (never mind the strengths and weaknesses of either school). McAdams is touching as Jones's son, but when called upon to play Jones himself he lacks the thunder, the mystery, and the authority of the preacher man (otherwise known as the shaman and the trickster, in other cultures). This show is ultimately more admirable (and quite so) than shattering, although it's worth considering how difficult it might be to reproduce Jones onstage. A Jim Jones, after all, doesn't come along every day.