If you're of the right age, you probably remember Jones. He began his career as an evangelical preacher who promoted racial integration in the church in the 1960s (sounds good so far). Then he moved his congregation of approximately 100 from Indiana to Ukiah, Calif., where he set up camp and began to recruit more followers. The population of his church, known as the People's Temple, grew to include thousands. In the early '70s, he bought a building in San Francisco.
Here's where things got weird. A few years later Jones relocated the group to what became known as Jonestown, in Guyana, in an attempt to create a self-sustaining agricultural commune, and took hundreds of devotees along with him. Rumors began circulating about verbal and physical abuse within the church, "practice suicide missions," and people living on nothing but rice. Soon many were trying to escape. When a delegation of American politicians and reporters went to Jonestown in 1978 to check things out, the trip turned into a massacre. After a congressman and several journalists were shot by church followers, Jones led the infamously successful mass suicide of 914 people living on the commune.
Developed over the past three years by Berkeley Rep and Z Space, The People's Temple, directed by Leigh Fondakowski and making its world premiere, is a highly anticipated docudrama about this bizarre historical event. Written in much the same spirit as The Laramie Project (which traced the events leading up to the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder in Wyoming, also directed by Fondakowski), Temple covers the 25-year rise and fall of this idealistic yet fatal religious movement. The play is culled from interviews with ex-followers and family members of the dead, as well as letters from church members and tape recordings left behind by Jones.
"It's an enormous project," said Stephen Wangh, one of the four writers, in a recent phone interview. "If we could have written a miniseries or a nine-hour play [it would have been easier], but to squeeze all the material into an evening was really difficult." The work does more than document the cult's downward spiral; it starts at the beginning, in Indianapolis, when the church was filled with gospel music and optimistic visions. The point of the project, said Wangh, is not just to re-enact the atrocities that took place, but to explore the reasons people were drawn to the temple in the first place. "It's a story of people in denial, holding onto hope against hope, trying to ignore what they saw in the organization," he said.