Tuesday, May 3, 2011
How The People's Temple made me a better person
For the last couple of months, I had spent time watching those evangelists on TV, seeking others out on YouTube. A good actor works at his craft, and I am about to play Jim Jones, one of the most charismatic evangelists known. I'm doing my homework.
Suddenly he says something that makes me want to listen more than examine. "Adam and Eve," he says, "were failures. So we are the descendants of failures." He leaves this tangent and resumes his Revelation sermon.
Failures, I thought. The pulpit vernacular would call for "fall from grace" or "original sin" - not "failure." It's all about the choice of words, I thought. It's always about choices.
A certain friend, if present, would remind me that actors always find some parallel between their role and their life, some line in the script that magically describes both the actor and the portrayed at that moment in time. The truth of that did not detour me from the intersection between this fresh image of mankind as "failures" and the real-life characters my friends and I are portraying in a production of "The People's Temple."
People think they know the story. Jonestown. They saw the magazine covers back then, or the documentaries on milestone dates. Bunch of "crazy cultists piled up in the jungle." The people who "drank the Kool Aid." They know the ending, but they don't know the beginning, why they belonged to Peoples Temple in the first place, the director would say. Let the play tell the whole story.
The whole story, we learn over the weeks of rehearsal, is about love and need and seeking social justice. It's about civil rights and politics and money and manipulation. It's about finding hope and an imperfect peace in a world that had lost its mind. It's about megalomania and self-deception and group think and going along to get along, and in the end, it's about frustration and fear and paranoia and madness. It's about flawed people; or, in other words, all people.
It's instinctive to turn away from something disturbing, to close your eyes and your heart to something you can't understand. To tell this story we had to choose not to turn away but to look deeply into the words and the meaning, into these lives, to see through another's eyes. It was painful, and joyous, and painful again. It was a journey worth taking. I know that all of us see the world a little differently now. Maybe we will have a little more compassion and be less likely to judge. Maybe we won't turn away when someone we care about makes bad decisions, or when we see someone "acting crazy," but instead will choose to open our hearts and understand. It's always about choices.