One of the greatest theaters in the Bay Area, hands down, is the Berkeley Rep, where I've seen Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, the premier of the Tectonic Theatre Company's The Laramie Project, and, most recently, the same company's brilliant, balanced, and heartbreaking The People's Temple.
Though it's nearly impossible to be an American with any knowledge of late 20th century tragedies and not know anything about Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple (or, for that matter, of what happened in Laramie), most of us probably have a fairly one-dimensional view of the subject: horror, revulsion, and disbelief at how more than 900 people could be duped into going along with such a crackpot.
Which is why The People's Temple is so amazing: told from the perspective of Jonestown survivors, Peoples Temple defectors, family members, and reporters who covered the story at the time, the play makes clear both the madness of what happened on November 18, 1978, and the utopian dream gone awry that led up to it.
In its early days, Jones' church was a model of integration (at a time when the US was anything but), providing social services, acceptance, political activism, and a seemingly infallible model of socialist idealism come to life. People joined the church for any number of reasons, but one of the foremost among them was that it offered a vision of a society they could find nowhere else. What comes through in the play, just as strongly as that tragedy that was to follow, is the joy that members of the Peoples Temple found first in Indianapolis, then in Northern California, and then, at least for a short while, in Guyana.
The People's Temple makes no apologies for Jones or anyone else; instead, it uses source material, interviews, and the memories of those who were there to create an intensely moving, understandable, and well rounded version of a story that's been told so often it long ago descended into myth. In doing so, it not only brings a troubled and ultimately tragic piece of history to life, but also goes a long way toward answering what must be the most commonly asked question: Why?