Theatre: Jonestown

Set in a small cabin in the Jonestown community, Guyana, South America, 1978. A door stands in the middle of the stage, separating inside from outside. Warm lighting for inside; cool for outside.


Ida - Older sister, confused, cynical, protective

Lillian - Younger sister, peaceful, strong, determined

Both African American


Ida rushes on-stage through the door. Lillian is scribbling words on a note. She stuffs the paper into her top.

Ida:         (with back to the door, breathless) Time is running out.

Lillian:         I know. And I’m ready now.

Ida:         Lillian, wait, don’t do this. Please just think, for a second. It’s chaos out there.

Lillian:     (starts pacing) I have thought about this Ida. We’ve done what we can. We’ve tried to bring the light, and now they’re going to… (she stops pacing) Well, better that we decide for ourselves.

Ida:     You can’t mean that. You listen to his voice every day and night. It’s got to you Lillian. Can’t you understand that everything we hear about what’s going on in this world is twisted? It’s not a utopia anymore. I don’t think it ever was…

Lillian:         (quietly) He’s right you know. 

Ida:     Right about what? Right about how we never think for ourselves anymore? Right about how he’s using us all to make up for his abused, neglected past? You’re not thinking straight.

Lillian:     No, Ida. The world is broken. He’s right about that. So much hatred and murder… I just can’t… 

Ida:     No! Surely you haven’t forgotten what we came here for? To change things… the world even! (laughs scornfully, then a shadow passes over her face)

Lillian:     Ida, I’m not giving up. This is still a revolution. Of a different kind. We started out to give life to a people broken by capitalism and its system of exploitation…

Together:     …and injustice.

Ida:     Yes, Lillian, I’ve heard it all before, every waking moment! His voice drones on and on in my head until I feel like I want to scream! (clenches fist) But of course, I can’t, I can’t even talk to the person next to me or god-forbid I start to think for myself. He’s taken our freedom Lillian. (slowly) I see that now…

Suddenly they start to hear some commotion in the background. 

Ida:     I’m not letting you out there! I won’t. Come with me! I… I’m going to run. We can make it if we go now.

Lillian touches Ida on the shoulder and shakes her head.

Lillian:     I’m not running away. You were right there with me Ida. You saw it all! That’s why we came here. How can you forget?

Ida:     (with hands shaking) I haven’t forgotten. Every night I close my eyes and I see our mother, and I see her… silent. She’s not crying, she’s just standing there, dazed and broken. I will NEVER forget that. 

Lillian:     And the People’s Temple took us in. Told us that it wasn’t ok, that everyone else was wrong. That our mother was beautiful and precious and didn’t deserve anything that she had to endure. It was the first time I knew truth, Ida. We found it, we found the truth. 

They hold hands, then Ida backs away as if to clear her head.

Ida:     It’s not truth anymore Lillian. I don’t know what happened or where we went wrong, but this ideology, this disillusioned, power-hungry maniac who talks to us in our sleep isn’t the same person. Can’t you see that Lillian?

Lillian:     I don’t believe that. He has shown us what the world can be, if everyone lived together in peace, in love. (unsure) But, maybe we started something the world wasn’t ready for…

Ida:     That’s right Lillian. You’re being pressured! Someone’s threatening you! Something else. Anything but truly believing this madness. You don’t really believe it, do you? The 20-hour work days, the propaganda, the nightly songs to our ‘saviour’? Do you still believe THAT’S truth?

Before Lillian can answer, Jim Jone’s voice muffles incoherently over the loudspeaker. Snatches of words can be heard.

“It’s all over. They’re coming to torture... we can’t live in peace... Let’s not fall into... just stepping …into another plane. Quickly! Quickly … bring the... It’s simple...”

Ida:     (shaking head desperately) I should’ve known this was going to happen when we came here, to this god-forsaken place. I’m sorry Lillian, I thought…

Lillian:     I’m going. This is the only way to write our story into history. We’re not going to let them write it for us. I so desperately want you to join me sister, but I can’t make you. Just try to understand, please, when I’m...

Ida:     (anguish washes over Ida’s face as she calls out) Lillian, no. Wait. Not yet. Not like this. (As Lillian opens the door, Ida rushes over and slams it, grabbing Lillian) Run with me! Now! Please…

Lillian:     (quietly) No, sister. I won’t run. I’ve lived a better life here than I could have hoped for. When our mother died, I felt like dying. But I was afraid. Now, I know she’s been redeemed. I feel peace. I hope that you find your own peace too. 

She gently takes her sisters hands off her, they stand silently, then Lillian walks past her and out the door, leaving it open – walking offstage. Ida stands frozen, then suddenly turns around and runs through the door.

Ida:         Lillian! Come back! No, no, no. 

She looks around her as if to run, then hears Jim Jones on the loud speaker again.

“Please. For God’s sake, let’s get on with it! Don’t be this way! Stop these hysterics. Die with respect, die with a degree of dignity.”

Ida can hear faint cries and screams, she turns around and shuts the door to cower in the corner, frightened.

Ida:     (realising she is alone) What have we done? When did this happen? (crying) I thought we’d be safe. Not this nightmare. I wish… That mother wasn’t raped. That we were white. That we were men (she holds her head in her hands).

Lillian stumbles back onto stage and bumps into the door. Ida stands up, rushes to open the door and catches her just before she falls, pulling her into the cabin.

Lillian:     (in a daze) It’s a beautiful day out there you know. The sky and (coughs), birds singing. It’s peaceful. We all just lined up and hugged and kissed each other. We were finally unified. It felt… right (gasps and clutches her stomach).

Ida lowers her to ground and cradles her, crying.

Lillian:    (reaches up to wipe her tears away) It’s nothing to cry about sister. We could be rejoicing. We come into this world crying because we know one day we’re going to die. But we don’t have to leave this world crying. I’m leaving it joyful. We were given the chance to make a little bit of difference. And we did (she smiles upwards).

Ida:     (shaking her head and wiping tears away) Why did you have to do this? (looking out the open door) Damn you Jim Jones! Damn you for your lies. 

Lillian:     Don’t. Don’t, Ida. Jim Jones has suffered for us all. What is this in comparison? We’ve had a beautiful life. There’s nothing to regret. I don’t regret a single thing.

Ida:     Of course you don’t. You never did. (crying) You lived such a simple, beautiful life. You never asked questions. You just saw the sun and you smiled. You just heard someone laugh and laughed with them. You just sang your own song… you never noticed that the world was changing.

Lillian:     (eyes glazing) We’ve lived and loved like no one else. And we don’t have to suffer anymore. I get to see mother soon. And I’m not afraid Ida, please remember that I wasn’t afraid (coughs, shakes, foams at the mouth).

Ida:     (bends over Lillian and whispers) I’ll remember. I love you, Lillian. I love you. Please, I’m so, so sorry.

Lillian reaches into her coat and pulls out a piece of paper. She gasps and then lies still. Ida slowly sits up. Her face is full of anguish as she sobs silent tears. 

Ida:     (whispers) No, no, no. You were wrong Lillian, you shouldn’t have died like this. (looking up) Mother, we did this for you… we tried. I’m so sorry.

She reaches for the paper and opens it shakily, reading aloud in broken sobs.

“To whomever finds this note, collect all the tapes, all the writings, all the history. The story of this movement, this action, must be examined over and over. Please try to understand. Look at all. Look at all in perspective. Look at Jonestown, see what we have tried to do. We did not want this kind of ending. We wanted to live, to shine, to bring light to a world that is dying for a little bit of love. There’s quiet as we leave this world. The sky is grey as people file by slowly and take the somewhat bitter drink. Many more must drink. A teeny kitten sits next to me watching. A dog barks. The birds gather on the telephone wires. Let all the story of this People’s Temple be told. If nobody understands, it matters not. I’m ready to die now. Darkness settles over Jonestown on its last day on earth.”

Ida drops the note, bends over her sister and hugs her, sobbing, then hearing gunfire in the distance, looks at her sister one last time and runs out the door, offstage, into the jungle.

© Esther Dawson, 2016