Furloughed? Sick of snow?
Cheer up. You could be a member of the People’s Temple.
The Reverend Jim Jones (Lance Bankerd) and his tragically devoted followers are back from the jungles of Guyana and as ghoulishly riveting as ever in Rapid Lemon’s world premiere production of Thank You, Dad, a three-act, documentary style play about the 1970s cult leader.
Playwright Aladrian C. Wetzel was commissioned by Rapid Lemon for the project, combing through reams of documents and transcripts of audio tapes seized by the FBI. Wetzel describes the tapes as being “more vivid and surreal” than anything that could have come from her talented pen and truer words were never spoken.
The words from the People’s Temple followers are haunting and hopeful–wishes, dreams, devotion from men, women and youth who believed in obliterating color lines in favor of equality, a shared economy and social justice for all.
[adsanity_rotating align=”aligncenter” time=”10″ group_id=”1455″ /]
The Reverend Jim Jones (played with downright eerie uncanniness by Bankerd) and his People’s Temple has gone down in history as gruesome shorthand for blind faith. All most people remember is the mass murder-suicide in Guyana in 1978, where Jones exhorted his nearly 1000 devotees–children first–to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and “step over to the other side.”
Photographs and footage from the jungle death site are as nightmarish as those from the Holocaust–the irony is real, since as a child Jones was fascinated with Hitler along with other cult leaders. But few may remember that before Jones went dangerously Looney Tunes and became a paranoid socialist demogague, his heart was in the right place and he was a passionate activist against racism and systemic poverty.
The first act, “The Monkey Seller,” shows Jones in his early days, a silver-tongued door-to-door preacher with brilliantined hair and a dazzling smile. As he pedals his religious message (and, oddly, a monkey in a cage) to an unseen housewife, you can see the burning fervor behind his glibness as he talks of his mission “to heal America’s divide between black and white.”
Integration, he intones, is “the Lord’s way. Separation is not equal.” Now this was in the 1950s and 60s, when America struggled (not unlike today) with equal rights and embracing a nation of multiple ethnicities and minorities. Jones is so convincing that the housewife not only considers society beyond her white picket fence, but also having a monkey as a house pet. Praise the Lord!
In the second act, “The People’s Temple,” it is the 1970s and Jones is in full cult of personality mode, the fire and brimstone scorched by egomania and a paranoic belief in conspiracy theories about nuclear annihilation and genocide.
Thank You, Dad
closes January 20, 2019
Details and tickets
Clad in dark glasses and a white plantation suit (interesting clothing choice for someone whose followers share a slavery past) with a clerical collar, Jones looks like Messianic Elvis, as he condemns what he calls “sky gods” (aka God and Jesus), in favor of the earth god–namely, himself. He thunders about his omnipotence, saying that he controls the weather, time and whether people’s cars start in the morning and that he receives messages from Martin Luther King.
Blaspheming the bible as an instrument of bondage, Jones preaches that only he and socialism will set you free. The promised land is a commune where the holy trinity is Lenin, Marx and Chairman Mao. By this time, he’s almost speaking in tongues, ranting about a “little red book” that came to him from another planet (O-kay) and that he is still a healer, but one that cusses a blue streak.
Fascinating as these delusional are, the second act could use some judicious editing as it is both overwhelming and tedious.
The third act finds Jones in Guyana with almost 1000 devotees and it is the end times. Disheveled, rambling, broken, Jones speaks into the microphone and tapes the final moments of his failed experiment in socialist, colorblind utopia.
The microphone almost acts as a pacifier as Jones summons up what is left of his power over his followers as he cajoles them into this last act of faith–what he calls “revolutionary suicide.” The most painful part of this act is listening to him telling the parents to poison the children first before taking their own lives.
The overlapping voices of the followers wrench your heart as they thank Jones all he did for them, optimistic that a better life is waiting on the other side and, most devastating, that their deaths will mean something.
That is what stays with you in Thank You, Dad. Not the ravings of a madman, although Bankerd is hypnotic capturing Jim Jones’ Grand Guignol meglomania. No, you think about the people–idealists, believers in a equal society–reduced to a catchphrase, “drinking the Kool-Aid,” that is synonymous with blind, warped devotion. Never forget.
Thank You, Dad by Aladrian C. Wetzel . Directed by Donna Ibale, Justin Johnson, Chara Bauer and Lee Conderacci . Featuring Lance Bankerd and the voices of Jennifer Danielle Alexander, Chara Bauer, Zipporah Brown, Tina Canady, Lee Conderacci, Terrance Fleming, Max Garner, Justin Johnson, Andrew Porter, Crystal Sewell, Mike Smith, Jared Michael Swain, Aladrian C. Wetzel, Dana Woodson. Stage Manager and Gallery Curator: Jennifer Danielle Alexander. Lighting Design: Daniel Weissglass, Projection Design: Chris Uehlinger. Set and Properties Design: Max Garner. Costume Design: House of Bankerd. Assistant Stage Managers: Nick Smith, Charles Woods. Dresser: Marie Bankerd. Produced by Rapid Lemon Productions . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.