DISCLAIMER: A member of the BITRSisters is involved in this production. This sister that covered this though had no previous knowledge of the play, actor, contents, or staging of this production. But you have been warned appropriately.
First of all, I just spent thirty minutes googling various aspects of the People’s Temple, and Reverend Jim Jones. And I have read and studied him before! But I left with a list of queries about his race, socialism status, and demise. Aladrian C. Wetzel has moved from small plays to her largest one to date. And she must have been drowning in research; for as she states in the program, “Because the real words are far more vivid and surreal than I anything I could have created myself.” So is the truth stranger than fiction? Yes, and this play is a stick of truth dynamite.
The show is billed as “a collection of three short plays,” because each Act showcases a different phase in the life of Jim Jones. This gives the audience an intimate insight into how he developed from a socialist preacher, into the cult leader we all know has gone down in history. For those that are clueless, Jim Jones founded a church called the People’s Temple. It was started in Indiana, then moved to California, then ultimately to a compound in Guyana where Rev. Jones led just over 900 members to commit mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool aid.
The first thing you will notice walking into The Theater Project is the lobby. There are tons (I mean seriously like 100 or so) pictures and information mounted on the walls. Not only is there a timeline of Jim Jones but also historical contextual points to emphasize his decisions and progress. There are photos, charts, and extensive information. All of this was done by playwright Aladrian C. Wetzel and Gallery Curator Jennifer Danielle Alexander. It looks like that was a labor of love. I began reading and kind of fell down the rabbit hole of information. I began taking notes, then writing questions to myself to google later in my ignorance of what was presented. Then someone opened the door and said the house was open, so I tried to take in the rest at intermission but still didn’t make it all the way around. Sigh. If you are an information junky and reading nerd like I am, make sure you get there early enough to peruse this at your leisure.
Act 1 is titled “The Monkey Seller.” This act chronicles Jim Jones humble beginnings as a preacher in Indiana. He is portrayed here in a very styled black wig and well cut gray suit. He is going to door to door to testify and encourage the community members to attend People’s Temple. The entire act is presented in second person, where the audience stands in as the little old lady he is ringing the doorbell of. The porch is the only set dressing along with a projection of the house across the way. He also has a mysterious cage and might be trying to peddle strange animals as well. This act really highlights Jim’s foundation. He was charismatic. He was easy to talk to. He was kind and charming and bit awkward but totally relatable. His allure is what got members to join in the first place. And the only actor in the play, Lance Bankerd does an excellent job of leaning into his vulnerabilities while staying poised and on the tip of propaganda. He does channel a bit of television evangelist and a bit of door to door salesman, mixed with some flashy toothy smile for good measure. The scene is interrupted a few times with recordings of what appeared to be analysis of Jones tactics. These recordings were echoey and tinny with reverberation. I assume to indicate that they are either internal monologues of Jones himself or merely for the audience to realize this was a plotted scheme. They were hard to understand in this act, but become clearer as the play progresses.
Act II is “The People’s Temple.” Here Jones has moved his congregation to California, near San Francisco. He has begun his platform of socialism, and has begun to break from the Bible- as illustrated in a comical scene where he jumps and pounces on it kicking it all about the stage. This is the beginning of a transformation, and something like watching a butterfly fight its way out of the cocoon, he is fumbling a bit to find his footing. He denounces the “sky god” and reminds the people that he has done more for them than any divine entity ever has. Here he also begins his crusade to establish himself as non-white (p.s. he is like totally white) and this is an interesting and fascinating side note I did much time researching. He claims to be of Cherokee decent and often refers to the African-Americans as his people. He makes defaming comments like “cracker capitalist assholes,” and did adopt several children of all different races and nationalities. It appears though, that by all measured standards, he was Caucasian.
He believed in an easy intermingling of races, something that in the 1960s was still in the conception phase more than the implementation. I suspect that this how many joined his congregation in the first place. Somewhere in the insanity lies a carp of truth. He advocates something that you feel strongly about. So you listen, and you lean in, and that’s where he hooks you. Maybe you don’t agree with everything he says- like pointing out the hypocrisies in the Bible, or that he believes in paranormal activities, or thinks he is capable of Jesus status by healing the sick- but he has your attention. Lance in this act channels a bit of Elvis with his aviators, and swagger. He is becoming more confident, prominent, and dangerous. All of these are encompassed within his speech and delivery from the pulpit. But the magic of this act is when he walks forward and engages with the audience. Calling us out for our indiscretions, challenging us to give him exorbitant amounts of money, and encouraging our well-being via flu shots. He is still a bit unhinged, whether it is mental illness, cockiness, or just the rambling musings of an extemporaneous speech- he is marred here by some stuttering and errors in reasoning. All done masterfully by Bankerd to hone in the essence of where this man was headed.
After an intermission, you return for the finale, Act 3, titled “Guyana.” Here Jones has moved his cult, I mean congregation, to a compound in South America. Many went willingly, but a few had second thoughts once there. These “defectors” are called out and named in this act. They are shunned and asked to leave or repent and it is here that the refrain, “Thank you, dad” takes hold. He claims to be a father to all of these people, and in doing more for them than anyone else emboldens them to use the refrain, “thank you, dad.” Lance here is coming undone, as Jones knew he was reaching the end of his rope. His perfectly styled hair has come undone, he is out of his suits and into leisure wear. The aviators stay though. He sits in a chair with a microphone and dictates his musings into a tape recorder beside him. This is particularly poignant because, in talking to Wetzel during intermission, the People’s Temple recorded everything. Apparently the recordings can be accessed online and are disturbing in their raw emotion and truth. Many recordings were used but re-recorded (why there are “voices” noted in the program) for use in this production. As members come forward to commit suicide they thank dad and testify to his greatness. The fell swoop of this is punctuated by Jones insinuated death as he stumbles off stage to his own demise. Powerful and chilling, this last act encapsulates all that is wrong with this society, and how easily people are led to believe what is in front of them. Everyone left with a bit of edging needed catharsis to regain control after that startling climax of an ending.
Some of the more alluring technical elements are the projections by Chris Uehlinger. From pictures and footage from the files of Jonestown to animated graphics of a heart beating, his keen eye for underscoring the text with visual accompaniment is exacting. Each act is also co-directed by two. The first was Donna Ibale & Justin Johnson, the second Donna Ibale & Chara Bauer, and the last Donna Ibale & Lee Conderacci. At least several of these individuals have never directed before, and I was impressed! Whether it is the co-authoring element of seasoned and fresh eyed analysis, or the mix of inter-workings, it culminates in a fascinating and engaging look at a historical enigma. And as director Donna Ibale pens in the program, “There are demagogues all around us, and if we can’t critically pick apart those who lead us, we might end up someplace we cannot escape.” Damn girl, you nailed it.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? You need to see this piece! As it was mentioned in the opening night speech, Rapid Lemon is going for the “home-grown, non-GMO, theater cultivation,” and it works! They are catapulting local playwrights, directors, actors, and more into the limelight and giving voice to historically interesting persons. This is the essence of Baltimore theater- a wonderment of local talent telling a compelling story! Go see this before it ends! I might be going again. (I)
Running through January 20th. Running time just under two hours with one intermission.