'The People's Temple' explores Jonestown tragedy
The expression "Drinking the Kool-Aid" is usually delivered with a sneer to describe people who unquestioningly follow orders or commands from incompetent or misguided leaders.
It's a glib reference to the Jonestown massacre on Nov. 18, 1978, when 918 Americans died at an agricultural mission in the jungles of Guyana, South America. Nearly all who died consumed a grape drink laced with cyanide poison (whether they drank willingly or were forced at gunpoint is still hotly debated).
It was a horrific end to The People's Temple, a church led by the charismatic preacher Jim Jones. The People's Temple started in Indianapolis in 1955 before moving to the West Coast in 1966 around San Francisco and Los Angeles. It stressed racial harmony and unity through socialism, ideas that jibed with its followers who were largely poor and disaffected minorities.
In 2001, actor/playwright/director Leigh Fondakowski was commissioned to write a play on The People's Temple. Fondakowski was specifically chosen due to her work as an ensemble member of the Tectonic Theatre Project, a company most famous for the creation of the 2000 play "The Laramie Project" about the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard.
Fondakowski and her collaborators created "The People's Temple" in the style of "The Laramie Project," relying on more than three-years worth of research ranging from verbatim interviews of former People's Temple survivors to gleaning archival documents, photos and recordings from the California Historical Society.
"The People's Temple" had its world premiere in 2005 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California and had a developmental run at the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska. Thirty years after Jonestown transpired, Chicago's American Theater Company presents the Midwest premiere of "The People's Temple" in a strong and sobering production.
As in past productions, director Fondakowski places "The People's Temple" in a storage room filled with white cardboard boxes of documents and other personal items related to the tragedy. This simple set design by Sarah Lambert ties into the researchers' own exploits of sifting through the remnants and personal affects of those who died, plus the boxes also provide a handy screen for projected photos and film footage.
The versatile cast of 12 Chicago actors expertly morph from character to character, each offering positive and negative opinions on what lured members to be a part of Jones' congregation. A few actors like Darrel W. Cox and Tim Decker even take on the persona of Jones with his mirrored sunglasses and snappy jackets, a theatrical device to show how this smooth-talking preacher could change and deliver just what was necessary to bring people under his sway.
Lest you think "The People's Temple" is all doom and gloom, "The People's Temple" is also frequently filled with sarcastic humor and plenty of gospel songs that were historically sung by the congregation. Hearing actors speak as members reminiscing about the church's optimistic early days is also touching, challenging anyone's previous notions to write off People's Temple congregants simply as crazy cultists.
"The People's Temple" is extremely effective, though it doesn't have the same punch of "The Laramie Project" (probably because "The People's Temple" is about a long-gone chapter in history rather than "The Laramie Project's" historical incident, which is tied to still-debated social issues like hate crimes and gay tolerance). I also would have liked a tad more historical context reminding audiences how America has been rife with religious utopian communities (particularly the Amana and Mormons who went from 19th century fringe status to mainstream acceptance).
And no doubt "The People's Temple's" cathartic impact resonates much more on a California audience than a Midwestern one (particularly when prominent California officials like former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown get ribbed for their political pandering and photo appearances with Jones).
The only other flaws with American Theater Company's production of "The People's Temple" are minor. The cast could project their voices a bit louder on occasion, and American Theater Company really should find a way to extend the show's unconscionably short run.
Consider yourself warned. Rush to get your tickets now because "The People's Temple," easily one of the top must-see shows this fall season, won't be around for long.
"The People's Temple"
3 stars (out of four)
Location: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago
Times: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Sept. 22
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with intermission
Parking: Street and metered parking
Box office: (773) 409-4125 or actweb.org
Rating: Contains adult subject matter, language