“Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It” (Attributed to philosopher George Santayana) posted over the stage at The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Jonestown, Guyana. Noted academic, author, and playwright Sikivu Hutchinson mounted a theatrical reading of her acclaimed 2015 novel “White Nights, Black Paradise,” at the Zephyr Theatre on Melrose Ave. this past Dec. 14.
A past contributor for Our Weekly, which reviewed “White Nights” when it was published (see http://ourweekly.com/news/2016/mar/24/lost-promised-land/), Hutchinson initially became interested in the Nov. 18, 1978 Jonestown Massacre (upon which her novel is based) while watching a documentary on the tragedy. Struck by the majority of Black people among the 900 who died after drinking cyanide-laced fruit punch at the direction of their deranged leader, the Rev. Jim Jones, she set off on her own journey of investigation and research.
A scholar who’s taught at the California Institute of the Arts, UCLA , and Western Washington University, Hutchinson drew upon her background in Performance Studies to present her short play “Grinning Skull” at The Paul Robeson Theatre Festival locally this summer. Set in 1940s Los Angeles, it centers on three female washroom attendants of color as they debate the merits of unionizing during those oppressive times. Its three actresses, Quonta Beasley, J. C. Cadena, and Cydney Wayne Davis were also included in the cast of the Dec. 14 presentation of “White Nights.”
Both productions center on the aspirations of marginalized people. In “White Nights,” Hutchinson seeks to dispel the perception of these unfortunates as gullible oafs susceptible to the whims of an unscrupulous preacher. The Peoples Temple offered up tangible benefits in the way of economic assistance, narcotic rehabilitation clinics, and other social services. Jim Jones himself projected substance enough to cultivate the support of numerous prominent public figures of the day, including then and current Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Merv Dymally, and contributed to the election of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (who also came to a violent end, just days later on Nov. 24).
The (fictional) characters presented during the reading voice their own misgivings about their leader, weighting the pros and cons of allegiance to a charismatic, polarizing man of the cloth. A similar dynamic occurred during the last major political election, when the sentiments of disenfranchisement helped catapult an upstart television personality into the apex of the national hierarchy.
Hutchinson aims for this to become a full bore stage production, to be offered in summer, 2018. other interested in the saga of Jonestown may seek out Leslie Wagner-Wilson’s autobiographical “Slavery of Faith: The untold story of the Peoples Temple from the eyes of a thirteen year old, her escape from Jonestown at 20 and life 30 years later (iUniverse 2009).”