On November 18, 1978, more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple religious movement, together with their leader, Reverend Jim Jones, died in Jonestown, Guyana, South America. That same day, Bay Area congressman Leo J. Ryan and three journalists were also killed as they were leaving Jonestown. Leigh Fondakowski’s “The People’s Temple” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is a production about this tragedy. Spark follows the project from conception to opening night.
David Dower and his wife, Denice Stephenson, attended college with Rebecca Moore, whose sisters Ann and Carolyn were members of Peoples Temple and died at Jonestown. They wanted a way to give meaning to the Jonestown event by presenting it as a theatrical documentary. Stephenson became the play’s researcher/archivist, and Dower, artistic director of San Francisco’s Z Space Studio, commissioned Fondakowski to write and direct “The People’s Temple.”
As a member of the Tectonic Theater Project (TTP) and head writer of “The Laramie Project,” Fondakowski has been working with the documentary theater technique for more than 10 years. Moises Kaufman and members of the TTP have produced plays that blended journalism and theater, thus developing what is now known as documentary theater. This format was chosen to retell this terrifying chapter in history by giving a voice to those who died as well as to the survivors, friends and relatives of Temple members.
Fondakowski, with Greg Pierotti, Steven Wangh and Margo Hall, based the play on historical documents from the Peoples Temple Collection at California Historical Society and more than 75 interviews. Facing the challenge of transforming the wealth of documentary evidence into compelling theater, the team worked for more than three years to stage this material. As Stephen Jones, son of Jim Jones, reflects, “Putting people’s experience on the stage and leaving people in the audience to make their own interpretation of it, I think that is powerful.”
More about Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Michael W. Leibert founded Berkeley Rep in 1968 as a storefront community theater. Winner of the 1997 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater, its national reputation draws theater artists from around the country to work on a variety of productions from September through July. The season consists of seven productions of the finest classic, contemporary and new plays. The Berkeley Rep School of Theatre offers classes and activities for both youth and adults and tours a fully staged professional production to schools throughout the 11-county Greater Bay Area.
Experience history in the first person with these retold and reinterpreted stories from the past.