‘People’s Temple’ at Puzzle Piece brings back Jim Jones tragedy
FERNDALE, Mich.–The People’s Temple, currently playing at Ferndale’s Puzzle Piece Theatre, is a comprehensive, emotionally difficult, but worthwhile look back at the story behind the mega church that started small in Indianapolis, grew enormously in northern California, and ended in unbelievable mass tragedy in a South American jungle.
The show was originally created in the early 2000s as a combination oral history of and memoriam to the victims of Jim Jones, 25 years after the horrific Jonestown tragedy. Many of us who were alive at the time might only recall the ending: News footage of a US Congressman’s party being ambushed at a runway after their visit to Jonestown. And horrific footage of the dead in the Jonestown compound, where nearly a thousand disciples were coerced into murdering children and seniors, then taking their own lives.
But the play, presented mostly as a series of monologs based on historical records and interviews, begins 20 years before that, in segregated 1950s Indiana. Jim Jones actively worked to integrate people of color into white churches, angering some white members, but attracted many others of all backgrounds.
The show continues on, documenting his move to northern California, where he built on the wave of social change, developing a large-scale following. But there were many unholy happenings behind the scenes. And as questions mounted and investigations started, Jones fled to a compound his people had carved out of the jungle in Guyana.
This story, spanning decades and featuring dozens of storytellers, is relayed by a ten-person ensemble quickly jumping from role to role. We hear the tragic stories of people broken by life, pulled into Jones’ orbit. And we cringe at the descriptions of that last day: Survivors who abandoned children there, or fled after finding family dying.
The players include Shelby Bradley, Steve Xander Carson, Linda Rabin Hammell, and Lindel Salow.
Among actors with particular standout moments are Craig Ester, as Jim Jones, Jr. and several activists and followers of his. Jeffrey Miller portrays everyone from a Jonestown escapee to a stoner drummer in the Temple band. Laura Heikkinen ranges from a Jones’ follower to a journalist investigating him. Karen Minard’s best moments include one as an early Jones adherent, convinced he has cured her. And Joseph Sfair captures the creepy charisma (and creeping madness) of Jones himself, as well as troubled Jones’ son Stephen, whose flat recitations reveal both his troubled childhood and survivor’s guilt.
D.B. Schroeder, producing artistic director of the theatre, has not only coalesced the challenging fragments into a cohesive whole, but designed sets, sound, lighting and projection.
As the narrative moves toward its grim finale, a couple of actors, miming the building of the Guyana compound, reveal the bitterly ironic sign bearing the George Santayana quote, hung in the pavilion where hundreds would die: “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
In our current moment in time, it is a chilling reminder there are no easy answers to a society’s complex problems, and that it’s all too easy for vulnerable people to follow the worst person down the darkest path.