The People’s Temple

This play is running for a little while longer at the Berkeley Rep and is definitely worth seeing. It tells the story of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple from its inception to the tragedy in Guyana where 912 people died to the present. The director/writer, Leigh Fondakowski, worked on the Laramie Project and this play follows the same format, telling the story through the words of the survivors and surrounding persons.

Jones led an interracial socialist Pentecostal-influenced church called the People’s Temple, starting in the late 50’s in Indiana, then moving to Ukiah, San Francisco, and finally Jonestown, a city they built in the jungles of French Guyana. In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan visited Jonestown and was shot along with 3 reporters. Then Jones ordered all the residents of Jonestown to take the potion. Over 900 residents complied, forcing their children to take the cyanide before taking it themselves. One of the survivors recalled watching his wife kill their child and arriving too late and holding them as they died. It was harrowing to hear it described.

The play is very good, although perhaps they should avoid so much singing in harmony, since their tuning is a little off (or perhaps someone was sick and it was just off that night). It suffers from a little imbalance of levity — in the first half you have ample time to laugh, and in the last half all the tragedy and dark side comes out. The actors are a strong ensemble, and they skillfully differentiate the roles they play.

I think everyone should see this play, especially if you know nothing (as I did) about the Jonestown tragedy.

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