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Minneapolis by Ed Huyck

The People's Temple at Guthrie Theater
Chopsticks, Band-Aids & Johnny Unitas at
Great American History Theatre

The People's Temple
Cast of The People's Temple
Since the November day 27 years ago when more than 900 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones committed mass suicide (or were victims of a mass murder, the evidence isn't clear), the main question of those on the outside has been: Why? Why did this man command his followers to do this, and why did they listen?

The People's Temple, now running at the Guthrie Theater, doesn't manage to answer those questions, but it does humanize the masses of victims of the crime.

Drawn from interviews, archival materials and the words of Jones himself, The People's Temple draws the audience into this still hard-to-fathom piece of American history. Lead writer and director Leigh Fondakowski and several of the collaborators have experience with delving into the darkness of our society: they worked together on The Laramie Project, the Tectonic Theatre Project's exploration of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd.

Like that show, The People's Temple is told in the words of the individuals themselves as it traces Jones' rise as a Pentecostal preacher in Indianapolis to his and his flock's move to Northern California. There, Jones drew together a mixed church (primarily African American) dedicated not just to worship, but to issues of equality and social justice. It became a unique mix of faith healing, hippie-style living and radical politics.

And somewhere along the line, it went bad. As the play deepens, the recollections begin to focus on Jones' fakery, his desire to control every aspect of the lives of the members of the temple and the physical abuse they faced. As the temple rose higher and higher in power - becoming a major player in San Francisco politics by the late 1970s - inside it fell deeper and deeper into darkness.

Increased public knowledge about this dark side led Jones to move the Temple to Guyana, where - in the isolation of the South American jungle - he dragged his followers into hell.

All of this is present in The People's Temple, but, in the creator's desire to show the nuances of the movement, the darkness doesn't get the play it truly needs. Or, perhaps to be more fine about it, there is never a sense of where exactly it all went wrong. Jones remains an enigma throughout the show, and we never get much more than a hint of his motivations.

That leaves the evening somewhat unbalanced, as the happy vibes threaten to overwhelm the People's Temple's dark ending. And all of those good deeds do not come close to balancing for the more than 900 corpses in the Guyanan jungle.

Yet the power of the material - along with the show's fine cast and design - brings home the underlying tragedy of the story. The ensemble - all playing multiple roles - draws out the essential humanity of these characters, be they family members, survivors or victims. And the set never lets us forget what this show is truly about. Placed on the stage are a number of giant shelves, piled high with white boxes. Inside each one are the personal effects of one of the victims.

The People's Temple is a powerful, harrowing evening. One, whatever the flaws of the script or presentation, in which the faceless victims of Jonestown are finally given a voice. That alone makes it worth the effort.

The People Temple runs through Feb. 5 at the Guthrie Theater, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. For tickets call 612-377-2224 (toll free: 877-44STAGE) or visit www.guthrietheater.org.


Photo: Michal Daniels


Chopsticks, Band-Aids & Johnny Unitas is also about memory, as each of the show's three monologues trace different parts of the performer's lives.

It's an uneven show. These three pieces were brought together for the show, as opposed to being written specifically for the experience, so there is little to connect them, other than the fact that each monologist is a woman and the monologues are drawn from their lives.

Cathy Gasiorowicz opens the show with a thud in "Falling out of the Family Tree." It's never a good sign when a mime joke bombs, and whether it was the matinee I saw or the material, Gasiorowicz's tales of constant injury - both physical and mental - never connected with the audience. In the end, we were left with the occasional funny bit interspersed between details of various injuries and platitudes about surviving problems that a motivational speaker would reject.

Much better is Nancy Bagshaw-Reasoner's tale of her arrival in the Twin Cities and her work at as a waitress in a now-gone downtown Minneapolis restaurant. In "It's Nancy at the Nankin," Bagshaw-Reasoner takes the audience back to the middle 1970s when the young actor arrived for a short stay in the Midwest to try and settle her mind. A long stretch between acting gigs led her to a legendary Chinese eatery, where she prepared for one of the toughest roles of her career - being a server. Bagshaw-Reasoner's rich evocation of the setting and the profound effect these few months had on her life do connect clearly. It may be a fairly straightforward telling of the tale, but it is one that brings the audience along - quite willingly - for the ride.

Maria Cheng takes the audience on a complex journey through her Chinese-American heritage in "Sworded Tales." Evoking Zen Buddhism, T'ai Chi and her adolescent adoration of Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, Cheng explores her own spiritual and emotional path. At times, the connection between the elements feel purely tangential, but the pieces - especially the central Unitas story from her youth and a postscript from four decades later - have their own power.

Chopsticks, Band-Aids & Johnny Unitas runs through Feb. 12 at the Great American History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul. For tickets and more information, call 651-292-4323 or visit www.historytheatre.com.


- Ed Huyck



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