The People's Temple

Wed. September 17, 2008 12:00 AM
by Michael J. Roberts

American Theatre Company's Chicago premier of The People's Temple is presented in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre which resulted in over 900 men, women and children being killed under the watchful eye of their leader, Jim Jones. This engrossing play, expertly directed by its creator, Leigh Fondakowski, unfolds as a pseudo documentary, features a talented ensemble of actors playing numerous roles all with the goal of determining how and why individuals followed Jones and more importantly, what drives a soul to follow a leader so blindly.

A tale of community and survival, the show spans 23 years of Temple history which culminated in November 1978 with 913 deaths at the Jonestown settlement and the assassination on the airport runway of Congressman Ryan and three journalists-- an NBC Producer and cameraman, and a photographer.

With new material added for the Chicago premier, the play uses original music from the Temple, archival materials and survivors' interviews to bring the stories of the worshipers back to life. Many of these stories are told for the first time as survivors have been sworn to secrecy or have been in hiding.

Temple members project the story forward as Jones builds his integrated church with promises of racial equality and economic justice, eventually moving the congregation from a racist Indiana community to Northern California's Mendocino County, then on to San Francisco, with congregations and churches in other cities-most notably Los Angeles. Blending music and sounds of his dynamic evangelical rhetoric, we see Jones attract the huge following which he will manipulate into a significant political force.

Darrell W. Cox is quite convincing as well as menacing during his scenes when playing Jones. When Cox takes the pulpit and speaks of prejudice, the words still resonate and are still timely. Daniel Bryant provides some great revelations to the story as Jones' son. Of all the ensemble members, Susan Petri is the most immersed in her characters, from the group's bus driver to a mother trying to understand the grip of cult on her child, Petri's performance is superb.

The climax of the play does not deliver as well as the first act and most of the second and the three hour running time proves to be a about a half hour too long. But the questions this work asks us are questions that are worth an honest searching of the soul for answers. To understand the nature of what forms a cult is the also the cure to stem such massacres such as the one in Guyana and Waco.

The People's Temple runs through September 22, 2008 at the American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago, Illinois. For tickets and showtimes, please visit