433 years ago, 918 Americans perished in an isolated jungle in Guyana (South America) on the 18th of November 1978. The U.S. had one of them. One was a U.S. Congressman. Three were journalists, and nineteen were citizens of Jonestown, the Peoples Temple agricultural missions known as Jonestown. The day saw the death of approximately 80 Peoples Temple members living in Guyana. There were hundreds more who survived in San Francisco or Los Angeles.
In the chaos of the aftermath, this event would be characterized as a “mass suicide.” We still hear echoes of this whenever we hear the phrase, “they drank the Kool-Aid.” But the idea that they all “drank the Kool-Aid” is a myth. Some people died not willingly on that fateful day. Some people were given cyanide without their consent, including senior citizens and children. Another myth states that Jim Jones is the only representative of Jonestown and Peoples Temple whose story merits telling. This is far from true—we know because we have been fighting to tell the broader story for more than two decades.
Time after time, we see the people of Jonestown described as “blind followers” and Jim Jones as the “cult leader” who ordered them to die. In this narrative, Jones is all-powerful, the people are robbed of personal agency, and the group becomes a blip in history, lumped in with other cults – everything from Heaven’s Gate to NXIVM. We glorify Jonestown and miss out on the chance to understand Jonestown’s true meaning if we don’t open this story.
David Dower in San Francisco was the artistic director for Z Space Studio. He asked us to create a play about Peoples Temple. He was impressed by our Berkeley Repertory Theater production. Laramie ProjectA play written by Leigh and based on interviews of Laramie residents, Wyo. in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s beating death at the University of Wyoming, was co-written. His thought was: Let’s tell the story of Jonestown in the same style, using the words of the people who lived it.
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Five years ago, I traveled all over the United States interviewing survivors from Jonestown. To earn their trust, it took many years. They were ridiculed, mocked and denigrated by the world for many years. Many of them were sharing their first-hand experiences with us when they spoke to us.
It was easy to see the human side of these survivors as well as their pain. The stark truth was that nearly 70% of Jonestown’s victims were Black. They went there to escape the brutal realities of ghetto life and the Jim Crow South in the 1960s and ‘70s in America. Their children wanted better lives for themselves and their families. They seemed almost forgotten in history.
Three things were made clear to survivors: We would not create composite characters from the stories of their victims. The second was that we wouldn’t include excessive violence. Although the events of Jonestown were horrific and horrendous, we will find a creative way to deal with them. Our play wouldn’t be about Jim Jones. It would instead be those who founded the Peoples Temple movement and we would try our best to reflect the Temple’s diversity in terms of race, gender, and class.
The third and most difficult promise to keep is the last.
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You can watch the play. The People’s TempleMany survivors went to the theater, which opened in 2005. Several remarked that they felt for the first time that the audience wasn’t viewing them as “other,” but more like “us.” One survivor who had escaped through the jungle in the final hours of Jonestown came to the theater looking for his friends in the Temple. It was difficult to distinguish art and life.
We were puzzled when the play ended despite the strong reviews received and the ticket sales. Documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s team saw our play in Berkeley. The team had also been working to reach survivors, and most of those we talked to were willing to be on-camera for Stanley Nelson’s 2006 documentary. Jonestown: The Temple of the Life and Death of Peoples.That seemed to mark a turning point. However, as we continued to work on this project, there were many other roadblocks that we encountered as we tried sharing our story. From the New York theater world to independent film producers to television, the constant refrain was “more Jim Jones.”
When a Hollywood studio announced a biopic on Jim Jones and a star was attached, survivors were contacted to find out how they felt. One of them said, “When I saw the news, my heart just sank. I just thought: Here we go again.”
Our goal in telling this story was to tell the stories of the people — who they were, why they joined and what happened to them afterward — to represent a diversity of voices.
Christine Miller is a Temple veteran who joined the Temple in Los Angeles and who was there when Jim Jones died. She stood up in the pavilion and said, “As long as there is life, there’s hope. That’s my faith.”
Hyacinth Thrash was joined by her sister Zippy and their father, Zippy Thrash. They were both members since the beginning of Indiana. Zippy went to report at the pavilion when the announcement was over the loudspeaker, but Hyacinth refused. She ran to her cabin and hid. She hid in her cabin the next morning, only to wake up the next day to discover that her sister was dead.
Odell Rhodes was a Vietnam veteran who had been homeless and found a place in Peoples Temple. He then managed to escape through the jungle as the suicides took place.
There were many other Jonestown families who lost parents, siblings, brothers, mothers and children, as well as their whole family.
Their children, as well as their grandchildren, are still struggling to comprehend their families and understand the traumas that have been handed down over the years. Jonestown was the death of an entire Black family, as well as Black teachers, leaders, attorneys, business owners, mentors and lawyers in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was also the first time that San Francisco’s Fillmore neighborhood was completely destroyed. This was an area which was predominantly Black. It felt like a ghost city.
Which person will tell their stories and who is there to help? Importantly, when is the time that this world and industry will be ready for them to share their stories?