Charles Manson, Adolph Hitler and most recently Jack Abbott have become the compelling subjects of new theatre works at the Trinity Square Repertory Company in recent years, based on what artistic director Adrian Hall calls “a fascination with exploring historical incidents.” But Trinity’s current work, entitled Jonestown Express, just may be the most ambitious—and controversial—historical play they’ve yet attempted.
It began nearly five years ago, in the wake of the Guyana tragedy which left 913 members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple dead by their own hands. James Reston, Jr., a respected investigative journalist, traveled to the site where he uncovered numerous tapes of Jones and various other members of the collective. Reston sued under the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the tapes, which were then broadcast on National Public Radio, and which formed the basis for his book Our Father Who Art in Hell.
But Reston did not feel he was finished with the topic, and when he mentioned to novelist William Styron that he was thinking about writing a play based on the Jonestown tragedy, Styron was quick to suggest that he approach Hall and his company with the idea. Thus, after a few weeks of preliminary exploration to determine that they could work together, began a period of development which lasted for the next several years.
“The main problem was to see that it didn’t turn into a docudrama,” emphasizes Hall. “We wanted to keep some sort of distance on the material, and not just retell the bloody details of the ending.” Although Jim Jones is an important figure in the play, it is not a play about him. “It’s about an attempt to create a utopia, and how it came to end in violence,” Hall explains.
“Two strong threads of belief came out of the ’60s in this country,” he continues. “Civil rights and the peace movement. Many of Jones’ followers, first in San Francisco and then in Guyana, were looking for someplace to go, something to commit to, at the end of the ’60s. His socialist ideals and his call for a new utopia were greatly appealing.”
And why do we continue to be so fascinated by the Jonestown story? Says Hall, “In America, we keep trying these utopian experiments, we keep dreaming of them. And yet we’re embarrassed by this dream—by the rawness of this kind of idealism.”
The play became an attempt to trace the myths that finally exploded at Jonestown, through the five or six central people who were the architects of the collective. Jones’ own paranoia, the fear tactics and other means of persuasion he used on the group are dealt with; but finally, says Hall, “We wanted most of all to find a voice to express the intellectual fervor, the idealized commitment of those people. It’s too easy to dismiss the whole thing by saying that Jones was a madman, or that no one in his right mind would have followed his orders. If we can succeed in showing how it happened, instead of simply what happened, we’ll feel we’ve done something important.”
Last summer, Reston and Hall felt that it was time to move on to the final, crucial stage in developing the work—to set the company loose on it. Was there an actual script for the piece when it went into production? “Well, there was material,” answers Hall, enigmatically. Once the company set to work on the piece, there began a “rough period of push and pull and stretch” where it was shaped into… Hall hesitates to use the word “play,” but can’t think of a better one. What is certain about the piece is that it moves freely back and forth in time, and it does not portray the actual mass “revolutionary suicide.”
The final title for the work was a fairly recent decision, but doesn’t Jonestown Express sound just a bit festive for such a horrific set of events? Hall explains that it is the actual name of a band that served as entertainment for the collective in Guyana. “We’re using quite a lot of music in the production,” he adds. “But it’s not exactly On Your Toes.” The title is also meant to evoke the idea of an adventure, a journey that has gone haywire. “In rehearsal, the image that kept recurring was that of a train picking up too much speed, going off the track—a juggernaut. So we felt Jonestown Express was doubly appropriate.”
There is an added connection that the company feels to the material. Trinity Square is and always has been, first and foremost, a company. Coming from that point of view, a dissection of the collective mentality at Jonestown was of particular in-terest to them. “They really understood Jones and his followers’ fear of ‘the fascists coming up the road,’ ” says Hall.
The large-cast production, running through June 17, features many long-standing company members, including Richard Kavanaugh, Richard Ferrone, Barbara Orson, Ed Hall, and Richard Kneeland as Jones. Will Hall move the production to the other theatre which he heads, the Dallas Theater Center? “I don’t think it’s economically feasible,” he replies. “Besides, they might tar and feather me.”
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