While there have always been individuals who idolize prominent criminals of the past and present, the fascination with cult leaders and other violent people from the 20th century has become more and more mainstream. This increase in popularity has been greatly aided by the focus that pop culture has placed on the crimes of the past. Netflix specials are made about strings of murders that are over a decade old; television shows have entire seasons focused on the rise of a cult in today’s social climate; and internet shows explore unsolved mysteries from the past century.
Perhaps one of the types of crimes to benefit the most from the public’s fascination are cults — due no doubt in part to the recent death of cult leader and pop culture icon Charles Manson.
This interest has even moved into the theater world here in Baltimore with a recent show called Thank You, Dad, presented by local theater company Rapid Lemon Productions, about the Jonestown Massacre.
Thank You, Dad is a play in three acts, all of which are centered around the infamous Jonestown Massacre (which is the origin of the common phrase “drink the Kool-Aid”). In November 1978, a total of 918 people died in Jonestown, Guyana, all but one by the same method of drinking cyanide-laced grape Flavor Aid. After the death of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan at the hands of a group of Jim Jones’ followers, Jones convinced the rest of his congregation to commit suicide to avoid death at the hands of the United States military. This part of the story is the most well known, but for most, their knowledge of the tragedy ends there.
The play used real transcripts and recordings of Jim Jones to form the script of the one-man show, shedding light on what the infamous pastor was truly like before he became the tyrannical leader that we know him as today. It is fairly easy to find recordings of Jim Jones’ speeches online, but hearing his words live — combined with the immersive experience of the lead actor, Lance Bankerd, interacting with the audience as if they were truly his congregation — made the experience so much more powerful.
Bankerd’s portrayal of Jones was utterly convincing. He masterfully conveyed the compassion that Jones showed to those in his community, especially in the first act, in which he played Jones as a monkey seller. From there he was able to portray the absolute lack of compassion that appeared when he began his ego trip and finished the play with a more peaceful rendition of Jones in his final sermon to his followers at Jonestown.
While Bankerd was able to successfully convey the total range of Jones’ emotions, the play lacked the transition periods between each version of Jones that would be seen in real life, leaving it up to the audience to imagine how he got from the kind, compassionate soul that everyone initially thought of him as to the megalomaniac that ordered a mass suicide.
The directors also chose to go an interesting way with the set design, relying heavily on the use of a screen rather than props and set pieces. One of the three acts only used a pulpit to set the scene, while another used only a lawn chair. The rest of the scene in these two acts was made up of pictures projected onto a screen behind the stage. Perhaps the most powerful part of the set was the pictures of Jim Jones’ followers that were projected behind Bankerd as he delivered Jones’ final sermon. Several audience members were moved to tears during this final act, speaking to the emotional effect of the images combined with the speech.
This play by Aladrian C. Wetzel seeks to shed some light on what really happened in the months and years leading up to the Jonestown Massacre. The gallery outside had newspaper clippings about Jones, a timeline of the current events at the time of his rise to prominence and transcripts of Jones’ speeches so that audience members might educate themselves more on the topic.
The play undoubtedly achieved its goal of showing the truth behind one of the greatest tragedies in American history. While its initial run at the Baltimore Theatre Project is over, the play’s message will certainly linger with those lucky enough to see it.