"TO WHOMEVER FINDS THIS NOTE: Collect all the tapes, all the writing, all the history. The story of this moment, of this action, must be examined over and over. It must be understood in all of its incredible dimensions. Let all the story of this People's Temple be told. Let all the books be opened. If nobody understands, it matters not. I am ready to die now. Darkness settles over Jonestown on our last day on earth."
-From a handwritten letter found recently in the People's Temple FBI files at the California Historical Society.
On November 18th, 1978, college students David Dower and his future wife Denice Stephenson were shocked by breaking news reports that several hundred Americans had been found dead in the jungles of Guyana, apparent victims of a mass suicide. The dead were identified as 913 residents of the agricultural project called Jonestown, led by the Reverend Jim Jones. Jones was the charismatic leader of The People's Temple -- a radical interracial religious group that had recently fled the Bay Area amidst scandalous reports about the group in the local press and Jones' subsequent paranoia. Twenty-five years later, the exact circumstances of the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown remained shrouded in mystery and controversy.
After college, Dower moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and embarked on a career in theater, first as an actor, eventually as artistic director of Z Space Studio, a theatrical development organization in San Francisco. Over the years, he was drawn back to the story of Jonestown again and again, searching for the meaning of the mind numbing tragedy there, and a way to present it in a theatrical context. With its tangled web of conflicting eyewitness accounts, the story is daunting in its scope and complexity. Whose version of the truth should be presented? How could any re-telling move the audience beyond their horror and fascination with the morbid details of the murder/suicide, to a more insightful understanding of why and how it happened?
In January of 2001, Dower commissioned Leigh Fondakowski, head writer of The Laramie Project, to create and direct a new play about Jonestown. Fondakowski, along with a team of three writers and an archivist, began by combing through the collection of People's Temple materials at the California Historical Society, where they unearthed oral histories taken in Jonestown. They learned that 80 people survived that day in Guyana and that there were hundreds of members of the People's Temple who were residing in the United States at the time of the tragedy. But where were these people now, 25 years later, and would they be willing to open up the wounds of the past to share their stories and insights?
For nearly two years, Fondakowski and her team worked tirelessly to locate and gain the trust of dozens of Jonestown survivors, People's Temple members and victims' families. They went on to conduct hundreds of hours of interviews. The verbatim words of those interviews along with documents and letters discovered in the archive would eventually comprise the entire text of the play, The People's Temple.
"You can't imagine you know all the guilt I feel about the decisions I made, if I'd made others it might have saved lives, might of changed events ... if I'd only done this -- if I'd only known ... you know, pile on to that how poorly I loved the people in my life when they were alive, you know, and then to lose them just like that -- they're gone. We never believed Dad would go through with that you know and like looking back, that's pretty -- delusional. But, you just have to know the whole story -- you just have to know my father."
-from an interview with Stephan Jones, the son of Jim Jones
Ultimately, it took Fondakowski and her team nearly four years to develop the script -- a process that entailed conducting work-in-progress readings with actors in cities on both coasts, with highly vocal audiences that included survivors who are portrayed by actors on stage. The process of collecting new interview material, soliciting responses from audiences, and editing and adding to the script continued right up until the time that the play premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in April 2005.
[Original air date: Sun, Nov 13, 2005]