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|A CurtainUp San Francisco Bay Area Review
The People's Temple
By Phyllis Butler
The play opens with the pitch perfect Gospel voice of Miche Braden singing "He's Able. . .friend to the friendless. . .he'll carry you through. . . " This spiritual song to God has immediate double meaning for those of us who know the tale of the duplicitous Reverend Jones who in 1978 led a huge band of believers to their death in a Guyana jungle.
The buzz in the San Francisco Bay Area about Berkeley Rep's The People's Temple is well-deserved. The world premiere of this theatrical exploration of the roots, rise and tragic demise in Jonestown, Guyana of the Utopian movement led by the Reverend Jim Jones is a moving account of the dreams of the hopeless. It is also an exploration of the now oft-told tale of the corruption of power by men like the egomaniacal pastor Jones.
Presented in association with San Francisco's Z Space Studio, the show is directed by Leigh Fondakowski, best known for her work on The Laramie Project, a groundbreaking play and later an HBO feature (given -that its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep in 2001. The script was written by Fondakowski with Greg Pierotti, Stephen Wangh and Margo Hall. Pierotti and Hall are also part of the talented twelve member ensemble cast, who play a variety of roles.
Based on extensive research --contemporary documents and interviews with over 75 survivors of the Jamestown massacre -- Fondakowski's newest work explores the unique mix of socialist politics, racial integration and Pentecostal fervor that attracted thousands of followers to Peoples Temple and its once idealistic leader. The story is framed in the opening scenes by journalist Phil Tracy, played with thoughtful style by Robert Ernst, who decries his part in "a story in which hundreds of children die."
It was Tracy's 1977 article in New West that first exposed increasingly disturbing reports of Rev. Jones' repressive tactics-mind control, breaking up families, demanding Messiah-like adulation to psychologically manipulate his followers to his demands. As the media began to scrutinize his ministry, Jones relocated his followers to the Temple's mission village called Jonestown in Guyana, to escape the outside world. There in the midst of an on-site investigation by Congressman Leo J. Ryan more than 900 members of People's Temple would die-along with Ryan himself.
A tale of community and survival, the show spans 23 years of Temple history which culminated in November 1978 with 913 deaths at the Jonestown settlement and the assassination on the airport runway of Congressman Ryan and three journalists-- an NBC Producer and cameraman, and a photographer from The San Francisco Examiner.
Developed over a three year period, the play weaves together music from the Temple, archival materials and survivors' interviews to create a startlingly moving experience. After decades enshrouded in secrecy, the stories of Jonestown's people are told, many for the first time.
Letters and testimony of Temple members carry the story forward as Jones builds his integrated church with promises of racial equality for Blacks and economic justice for the poor, eventually moving the congregation from a racist Indiana community to Northern California's Mendocino County, then on to San Francisco, with congregations and churches in other cities-most notably Los Angeles. Blending music and sounds of his dynamic evangelical rhetoric, we see Jones attract the huge following which he will manipulate into a significant political force.
Decked out in the minister's distinctive "meditation" sunglasses, two actors, James Carpenter and John McAdams, portray Reverend Jim Jones in different scenes. Each brings a strong presence to the role, but one expected more ringing rhetoric from the charismatic preacher who came to see himself as God.
The play's three-hour action moves rapidly through the history and highlights of the rise and fall of Jones and his Temple cult as they try to "create a new world." Although the tragic outcome is known, the honest, realistic dialogue serves the cast well. As the story unfolds, the players stepforward to tell heartfelt tales of hope, betrayal and grief which are punctuated with the remarks of ambitious politicians, eager to exploit Peoples Temple members who could turn out a crowd.
Coleman Domingo is right on in a pointed portrayal and quote from then State Legislator--later Mayor Willie Brown -- one of the liberal politicians who helped promote Jones. Barbara Pitts is convincing as investigative Chronicle reporter Julie Smith. Her bewilderment at Jones' overt sexual suggestions is one of the few hints of the growing dark deviations of the now sinister Reverend.
In a perhaps over zealous attempt to emphasize "moving forward rather than looking back" the play eschews the more sensational aspects of the evangelical cult's bizarre evolvement from its founding in Indiana in 1955 to its tragic finale in 1978 in Guyana. The multitude of characters serving as witness to the historic events leaves one confused at times. In the end, however, The People's Temple achieves a thoughtful dramatic resonance.
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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