All Over the Map
The People's Temple in Berkeley, Praying Small in Chicago, and All My Sons in New Brunswick
Perhaps no group of theater artists has been more renowned for theatrical documentary than the playwrights who are working on Berkeley Repertory Theatre's production of The People's Temple. This new play explores the lives of individuals involved with a northern California cult, led by Reverend Jim Jones, that grabbed headlines in 1978 after a mass suicide claimed the lives of more than 900 people in Jones's congregation. Three of the show's writers have worked with Moisés Kaufman on The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency, and one of them -- Stephen Waugh -- was Kaufman's professor at NYU. A pioneer of the form, Waugh founded a Boston troupe called Reality Theater in the early 1970s, and it lasted for more than five years.
A self-described "counterculture person," Waugh is most fascinated by the circumstances that led men and women to join The People's Temple. He believes that racial tension and economic strife were strong contributing factors: The People's Temple promised a classless, color-blind utopia, and Waugh points out that it was formed shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King. "People were looking for some sign of hope," he remarks, "and Jim Jones, in some way, filled that gap."
Directed by Leigh Fondokowski, the play contains interviews with former members of The People's Temple -- some of whom are sharing their stories for the first time -- as well as excerpts from old letters, books, and songs that the group actually recorded. At first, many of the interviewees avoided talking about their histories for fear of losing their jobs and friends; others have tried to tell their stories in the past, but nobody listened. "In that sense," Waugh says, "the theater can provide people some sense of empowerment."
But how can Berkeley Rep make sure that the play tells the whole story of what actually happened? Most media-savvy television audiences know that reality TV is heavily edited, and French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said that "every edit is a political act." Waugh agrees. One of the real-life members of The People's Temple went so far as to correct something that his character said during an early rehearsal. "Where reality becomes fiction is a messy line," says Waugh. "Sometimes, acknowledging the unreality of it makes it more real."
"It's not terribly autobiographical," says Morts. "I have a personal idea of what recovery's like, but the play itself is informed by a thousand different nights in a thousand different church basements, listening to a thousand different stories." While the work has found an audience among the recovery community and will be touring this summer to various substance abuse facilities around Chicago, Morts claims that he "didn't set out for it to be any sort of lesson play. I really just thought I was writing something that was important to me." Praying Small previously played at AWT in 2003 and proved so successful that the theater's artistic director, Michael Colucci, decided to bring it back in an all-new production, which he is directing.
The play was submitted for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and has been seen around the country at Florida Rep, Shawnee Writers Theater, and various venues in academia. Yet, according to its author, the current production is "far and away my favorite. It's just so simple, pared-down, economical, and minimalist. Michael has really gone to great lengths to make it completely about the words."
Morts began his career as an actor, under the guidance of acting teacher Michael Moriarty, and he has worked with such theatrical luminaries as Jane Alexander, Elaine Stritch, and Nathan Lane. "I stopped acting about six years ago when I was just out of control," says Morts. "It was no longer about the work anymore; it was about getting the next drink." Fortunately, he pulled himself together, returned to school for a certificate in substance abuse counseling from DePaul University, and now works at the Northside Adult Rehabilitation Center as director of rehabilitation. "If someone had told me 20 years ago that this is what I would be doing for a living, I would have laughed in their face," says Morts. "We deal mostly with inner city gang members, who are coke and heroin addicts. Very few alcoholics these days; we're a dying breed!"
Morts continues to teach acting and maintains his involvement with theater in other ways. "I wish to God I could do it full-time," he says, "but I had to make a decision about what's important to me, and what's important is this work [with the rehabilitation center]." Praying Small is a fortuitous intersection between his two career tracks: "I underestimated the power of the play to touch so many people," he comments. Audience members include not just those in recovery but also individuals with ongoing substance abuse problems who are brought to the play by concerned friends, lovers, spouses, parents, or children. "I have talked to people who have broken down and don't know what to say," says Morts. "One lady in Florida brought her husband, and both of them were just standing there crying. It hits people where they live."
A professor at Rutgers University, Marshall Jones III used to be a producer for the world-famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, and he also worked tirelessly every holiday season to make sure that A Christmas Carol was presented at Madison Square Garden without a hitch. Now, he's put on his producing hat again and founded a theater company near the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
When I spoke with Jones over the phone, his description of his Emerge Theater Company and its inaugural production sounded ambitious. The company's mission is to give actors of various backgrounds the opportunity to perform serious new works and re-imagined classics. For its first effort, Emerge is mounting Arthur Miller's All My Sons -- the recently deceased playwright's first commercially successful work -- with a multi-ethnic cast to deliver its timely political message.
Although most theaters set the play in the mid-1940s, Marshall and company take literally Miller's stage direction that the action takes place "in August of our era." This may make it sound as though serious liberties are being taken with the piece, but Marshall insists that "not one sentence of the original play has been changed." All My Sons concerns an industrialist named Joe Keller, who is accused of selling defective weapons parts to the government during World War II. According to the script, he lives in a midwestern town, and this production specifies it further by setting the story in an Ohio suburb that's home to America's largest arms manufacturers.
According to Marshall, the project has attracted many talented performers because minority actors jump at the opportunity to take on meaty roles in which they are not typecast. Iranian actor Ali Reza, who played the part of Dr. Qari Shah in Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, plays Joe Keller. Meena Jahi, who played Sarabi in the Broadway production of The Lion King, portrays his wife, Kate Keller. Perry Ojeda, whose Broadway credits include Imaginary Friends and On the Town, steps into the role of George Deever, who used to idolize Joe before finding out the truth about his business.
"I think that Arthur Miller would be surprised if he saw our production," says Marshall. "But if he did look down, he'd be smiling."