In my collaborative theatre ensemble class, our midterm is to devise a ten minute long piece deconstructing historical event.
My group was initially interested in focusing on the death of important figures from a variety of religions. We went down a rabbit hole of questions and tangential ideas and landed on the Jim Jones, the People’s Temple and the Jonestown Massacre.
Essentially, Jim Jones, a charismatic preacher of a sect of Christianity, started the People’s Temple in the 1950s in Indianapolis. He preached against racism and drew a diverse group of followers. The Temple and his community moved to San Francisco in 1971. After the move, Jones’ church was accused repeatedly of fraud, abuse and mistreatment of the children in the community. In an act of paranoia, Jones’ moved the church to Guyana, a country in Latin America. He built a “socialist utopia.” Jones’ armed some of his congregation and often tested the faith of the community and forced them to practice suicide several times in the middle of the night. He passed around kool-aid telling them it was poison. The ‘White Night” as Jim Jones called it, finally came on November 17, 1978. 909 were dead. Including over 200 murdered children who had no idea what they were drinking. Jim Jones committed suicide with his congregation. A couple members of the community escaped to tell the tale and what life on the inside was like.
As a theatre-maker, with a container of ten minutes to tell such a complicated story, I ask myself what my responsibility as an artist is to respect the concrete facts of history. Where is there room for artistic liberty in order to effectively communicate feeling, character, plot and themes? What about this story did we find compelling and think others will connect to?
Questions I want to explore before I continue with the piece:
What is it like live in a cult and want to be there?
What is it like to not want to be there?
What is it like being a child in that environment?
What did they believe they were committing suicide for?
What was after the act in their minds?
Why did Jim Jones form a cult?
What about him inspired people to follow him?
How did he recruit people?