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Out of Jim Jones' shadow

Inspired by letters, photos and objects from Jonestown, where 900-plus died, a new play at Berkeley Repertory explores human complexities behind the 1978 mass suicide.

April 10, 2005|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — A black rag doll. A burgundy choir robe. A bulletproof vest.

Denice Stephenson carefully lifts a few of the remnants of Jonestown from their storage boxes. Much of the detritus of that ill-fated, would-be utopia is kept here, in a vault at the headquarters of the California Historical Society.

A volunteer archivist, Stephenson places several of the hundreds of handwritten letters and photos on a long table. A cursory reading of just a few makes it clear that the 1978 poisoning of 900-plus disciples of the Rev. Jim Jones in a South American jungle was a thoroughly human catastrophe.

Stephenson describes what she feels is an unfortunately common and dismissive attitude toward the deceased of Jonestown -- "They were just crazy cultists." Then, with little prelude, she begins sobbing quietly.

When she regains her composure, Stephenson says she hopes the voices of those who died in Jonestown will be heard through "The People's Temple," a new play that will open April 20 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

It isn't just an idle hope on Stephenson's part. The seed for "The People's Temple" was planted at a 2001 performance of "The Laramie Project" at Berkeley Rep, attended by Stephenson and her husband, David Dower, who runs San Francisco's Z Space Studio. They wondered if techniques used to create "Laramie," which examined the community where the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard took place, could be applied to the story of the People's Temple -- the Jones-intoxicated congregation that left its California home and created Jonestown in Guyana.

The horror of Jonestown hit the headlines in 1978, as Stephenson was working on a student project with Rebecca Moore at American University in Washington, D.C. When her classmate suddenly seemed to disappear without explanation, Stephenson quickly learned that two of Moore's sisters were among Jones' most loyal followers -- and among the dead. Rebecca had been called to her grieving parents' side.

After college, Moore and Stephenson remained in touch. In 2000, Moore recruited Stephenson to assist in the research for a Jonestown documentary on the History Channel. Stephenson began reading the historical society's Jonestown papers, which included oral histories recorded in Jonestown, as well as letters, photos and objects. "I saw how much life there was in the papers," she says. "What a drama! What could be a way to get more of these voices heard?"

Dower contacted Leigh Fondakowski, the head writer on "Laramie." Soon Dower's Z Space Studio had commissioned Fondakowski to develop a People's Temple play. Stephenson showed historical-society materials to Fondakowski and her team of three writers. The writers also began interviewing people associated with the People's Temple -- not only surviving ex-members but reporters and politicians. With Z Space lacking the resources for a full production, Berkeley Rep signed on as the main producer.

Despite the worldwide attention paid to Jonestown in 1978, says Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, the focus in Northern California shifted quickly to the area's "other great trauma," the City Hall assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, nine days after the deaths at Jonestown. Now, "with the great benefit of a 27-year hiatus," Taccone says, Jonestown is once again claiming center stage.

But not Jones himself. He has been covered in books and in a TV movie, broadcast in 1980. "The production is trying not to begin and end with Jim Jones," Taccone says. "They're trying to stay away from what we already know."

The rehearsal hall for "The People's Temple," a block south of Berkeley Rep in the city's downtown, looks too bright and airy for such a somber play. Natural light streams through skylights in the high ceiling.

The room is hardly devoid of humor. On one wall, a gallery of photocopied images from Jonestown is cheekily interrupted by a couple of print ads that feature members of the cast.

Behind stage manager Michael Suenkel's desk, a "Godspell Meter" hangs on the wall. "There's a lot of gospel music in the play," Suenkel explains, "and rehearsals occasionally get a little too 'Godspell'-y" -- that is, too close to the style of that '70s musical. So the meter was created to discourage excessive outbreaks of hippie-gospel vibes.

During this rehearsal, the cast is going over a scene that uses a gospel arrangement of "Amazing Grace." Because the music is unadorned, without a catchy backbeat, it's unlikely to trigger the "Godspell Meter."

Absorbed in the spirit

Miche BRADEN is playing Hyacinth Thrash, who joined the temple with her sister Zipporah Edwards in 1957, before Jones moved the congregation from Indiana to California. In this scene, Hyacinth says her breast cancer was healed after Jones and fellow congregants laid their hands on her at a temple service.

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