Playwright Leigh Fondakowski discusses research on Jonestown massacre

Playwright Leigh Fondakowski

Kerong Kelly

Playwright Leigh Fondakowski addressed a small gathering of students and professors on Feb. 27 in the Elaine Langone Center Forum regarding her recent work on the Jonestown massacre.

November of 2013 will mark the 35th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, in which 918 people committed mass suicide at their compound in Guyana after they were ordered to by Jim Jones, who had declared himself a divine being. Gruesome scenes of the aftermath of the tragedy were widely broadcast on American television.

The Griot Institute for Africana Studies has hosted a number of events to explore topics of race, religion, power and identity, in a lecture series entitled “Jonestown Reconsidered, 35 Years Later” which aims to create a forum for students, professors, artists and scholars to engage in a conversation about the Jonestown massacre.

The series featured Fondakowski, author of the “The People’s Temple,” who spoke of the process of transforming historical events into art. Fondakowski, an Emmy-nominated co-screenwriter for an adaptation of “The Laramie Project” for HBO, is also a co-writer of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” “The People’s Temple,” a collection of interviews from survivors of the Jonestown massacre, is a vivid depiction of a historical tragedy.

Fondakowski said that her play is not solely the story of mass death. She did not want to depict the tragedy solely through one lens. Fondakowski also spoke about her first interview with Stephan Jones, Jim Jones’ son, where he brought a folder labeled “The Other Side of Jim Jones,” containing candid photos of his father. As a playwright, Fondakowski was faced with the challenge of representing a wide variety of perspectives on stage. To do so, she humanized Jim Jones through Stephan, but remained faithful to survivor’s accounts.

The words of the people are how we tell the story,” Fondakowski said.

Going into the interview process, Fondakowski decided not do extensive research before encountering the survivors in order to keep an open perspective and an unbiased point of view.

The various stage adaptations of “The People’s Temple” include the usage of boxes of archives and the passport photos of survivors as well as those who lost their lives at Jonestown. During one specific production, members of the audience attempted to climb onto the stage in order to look at the photos more closely.

Fondakowski said several times that it was not her role to determine what was true and what was not true. She is currently working on a screenplay with the hope that it will become a mini series rather than a straight feature.

I really appreciate how Bucknell is bringing in such a wide variety of speakers–from family members to survivors to artists, etc. Everyone brings a different perspective on Jonestown. I think the most important thing is that they all seem to want to ‘humanize’ the people of Jonestown and to dispel the notion that People’s Temple members were crazy, Kool-Aid drinking cultists,” said Chloe Drennen ’15, a student currently taking a class on the Jonestown Massacre taught by Professor of English Carmen Gillespie and Professor Emeritus Bob Gainer.

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