Surviving Jonestown

June 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


ACTOR: I am ready to die now. Darkness settles over Jonestown on its last day on earth.

DIRECTOR: Okay hold.

SPENCER MICHELS: On a stage in Berkeley, California, actors rehearsed “The People’s Temple,” a new, highly-anticipated play that tells the story of pastor Jim Jones and his followers, most of whom died in South America 27 years ago.

Today, all that many people recall about People’s Temple is the death of a congressman and three journalists, and the specter of more than 900 of bodies lying face down and a vat of poison.

STEPHAN JONES: I think they’re probably people that will only be able to see that image.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stephan Jones is one of Jim Jones’ surviving sons, who grew up with temple members — mostly poor African Americans who had joined a California-based church that pledged integration and a better life.

STEPHAN JONES: I would like for the people that I knew and loved to be known better than that. And I don’t want — I don’t want the story to be sugar-coated. You know, we were capable of real heights and great lows and everything in between.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stephan Jones’ father, Jim Jones, was a progressive and ultimately dictatorial leader and a faith healer, who promised a finer, fairer world and who led his followers to a jungle utopia called Jonestown. Who were the temple members and why did they believe Jones and ultimately follow him to their deaths? Were those deaths suicide or murder? Those are some of the questions raised by the play, as in this scene with the actor who plays Stephan Jones.

ACTOR: You can’t imagine, you know, all the guilt I feel about the decisions that I’ve made. If I’d made others, I might have saved lives, I might have changed events — if I’d only known, if I’d only done this.

SPENCER MICHELS: Leigh Fondakowski wrote and directed the “The People’s Temple” for the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: The story of these survivors and how they are looking back, how they are putting themselves into the past, questioning their choices, questioning their decisions, questioning their humanity, why they did certain things, why they didn’t do other things. To me, that’s really where the heart and soul of the drama lies.

SPENCER MICHELS: For Stephan Jones many of those questions didn’t have simple answers then and still don’t.

STEPHAN JONES: Why were we so ready to believe the really ridiculous stories that were being told about the wonder of paradise down there? We were just — we needed so badly for things to be better. We can look in our own country at how ready we are to follow somebody and how easily we get drummed up and, how easily we get put in line with fear.

SPENCER MICHELS: The play’s script was drawn from letters of those who died at Jonestown and interviews with survivors.

LEIGH FONDAKOWSKI: We’ve taken the text of the people who’ve died and we’ve put it right up against the text of the survivors from today, and they’re really in this incredible dramatic dialogue, which I think is only possible on stage.

ACTOR: I’m the first Negro adopted in the state of Indiana. I get adopted by Jim and Marceline Jones and have a very affluent life.

SPENCER MICHELS: Jim Jones’ adopted son, Jim Jr., is also portrayed in the play. Today, he is 44 and a salesman. He says it is important to give voice to the dead.

JIM JONES, JR.: You’ve heard that Jim Jones was a madman. And let’s be candid, he was. You’ve heard the swindling of money, the manipulation of politics. You’ve never heard about the movement. You’ve never heard the voices of the people that created this movement because Jim Jones couldn’t have done it himself.

SPENCER MICHELS: Voices like that of Elsie Bell, who died in Jonestown.

ACTRESS: I am much improved since I joined the People’s Temple. And I lifted myself from the cotton field and the ghettos to socialism and a principle to live by.

SPENCER MICHELS: Jim Jones’ story and the stories of his followers survive in these boxes of documents, tapes, artifacts and photos at the California Historical Society. Those archives become the setting for the play and a major symbol of the people who died in Jonestown. Historical Society curator and author Denice Stephenson, who worked with the writers of the play, still gets emotional just looking at the material.

DENICE STEPHENSON: I mean part of it is about people who believed in something and something terribly tragic happened. And so this story gives us a way to look at what happens when people give up too much for a dream.

SPENCER MICHELS: The archives contain some never-before-seen images of People’s Temple and its members.

JIM JONES, JR.: Johnny Brown Jones.

SPENCER MICHELS: The images bring up a lot of old memories for Jim Jones, Jr.

JIM JONES, JR.: Now see, I miss him. I miss him.

JIM JONES, JR.: The pictures of Jonestown go through my mind everyday. So when I visualize a picture now it just brings it to the forefront of what was lost. And that’s, I think — and I think that’s why I think this play is really going to demonstrate the potential was lost.

SINGING: Don’t you know God is able? He’s able.

SPENCER MICHELS: Using his own brand of religion, Jim Jones gave his flock confidence they could fulfill that potential.

ACTOR: The word is within thee. That’s the only word that you’ll know. That’s the only heaven you’ll find. That’s the only God you’ll know.

SPENCER MICHELS: And he opened his arms to congregants who faltered, like 17-year-old Stanley Clayton, who joined Jones’ temple after having been in trouble with the law. Today he’s 51.

STANLEY CLAYTON: He just made me feel really, really good to know that, you know, that this man cared about me, you know, and that I had a place in life, that from where I was out in the streets being that I was a nobody, a “tore-up from the floor” — as they called it — that here he was, he was giving me an opportunity to do something with my life.

SPENCER MICHELS: But eventually the media and others began to scrutinize People’s Temple, and Jones grew paranoid, fearful and threatened.

ACTOR: Because I’m going to stir up more fires than you have ever seen in all your life.

ACTOR: Praise God.

ACTOR: I’m going to stir up more tornadoes than you have ever heard of. I am going to establish a hurricane.

SPENCER MICHELS: Jones became convinced his integrated paradise was under attack. In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan flew to Guyana to investigate charges that Jones was holding people against their will. After defectors approached Ryan, Jones ordered him murdered.

At the airport, gunfire killed the congressman and four others. For Jones, his dream of a better world disintegrated. He decreed the deaths of all the residents by poison-laced Kool-Aid. Those who wouldn’t drink would be shot. A character playing surviving Temple member Tim Carter describes the horror.

ACTOR: And I turned to my right and at that exact second they were squirting poison into my baby son Malcolm’s mouth.

STANLEY CLAYTON: I saw this with my own eyes. Volunteers were coming up taking babies out of little newborn babies, taking them out of their mothers’ arms, and they were actually making them drinking it out of cups.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stanley Clayton escaped into the jungle just after he saw Jim Jones directing the poisonings.

STANLEY CLAYTON: In my eyes, I knew that this was murder. That’s why I always never say suicide. I’ve always said murder.

ACTOR: That was Jonestown. That was the great revolutionary — that was the mass suicide that took place.

SPENCER MICHELS: The play has people once again pondering the disturbing questions Jonestown continues to raise.