I was 18 years old when the news came out, about a community of Americans in the Guyana, what looked like a cult, who killed a US Congressman then committed mass suicide. Don't think I was alone in feeling deep shock. Still do. Almost every depiction since then, at least the one's I've seen, focused on the Congressman, on Reverend Jim Jones, on maybe a few people trying to escape. Never once have I seem much focus on what Sikivu Hutchinson's play does--the ordinary members of the People's Temple and why they joined.
White Nights, Black Paradise aims to accomplish much--recreating a bizarre and sprawling series of events that in truth stretched back decades, and thousands of individuals each with a personal history and story. Not easy. Not impossible, but a difficult challenge. Honestly the success ends up mixed.
What works in the play usually works very well indeed. More than anything it seems to capture a feel of rampant racism and despair, a desperate sense of being under attack which would be the African American communities in 1970s San Francisco (and likewise the United States, even what we like to call Western Civilization). "There is a war going on" characters tell each other, and as events progress we see why they say that. Nor are they wrong. Such an atmosphere stayed with me when I left the theatre.
More, I really want to heap some praise on most of the cast, especially those involved in what ends up the personal core of the plot. Taryn (Darnell Rhea Williams) and Hy Strayer (Charlotte Williams) are sisters fleeing Indiana (where, not coincidentally Jones had his start) for the relative comfort and hope of the Golden Gate. They arrive as the establishment is cracking down on the advances made by African Americans, determined to take what they've achieved, making a profit by wrecking the lives of the non-whites.
Now Taryn and Hy come to the People's Temple simply to get some hot food for free. There they meet Jess McPherson (Elvinet Piard) a fierce and strong advocate of the Temple, and sparks fly pretty soon with the elder sister. In time Hy begins going out with Foster Sutcliffe (Scott T. Patrick Williams) a sometimes Temple member increasingly seen as an outside, an enemy of those loyal to Jones.
Unfortunately this personal story ends up out of balance with a more stylized, broad series of presentations which all too often do not work, with a kind of Greek Chorus commenting in ways that often seem random. In fact the whole production lacks a certain focus, mostly in terms of individual stories and characters. The play was almost ended before I realized certain actors were playing more than one character, for example. Events eventually rush to a conclusion that seems almost to come out of nowhere--although this might be at least a problem with the direction, because momentum often stumbled. Likewise a sense of place was lacking, nearly throughout. Likewise I must say most the Temple Leadership, espeically Jones, came across as essentially identical at the start of the play as they were at the end.
I cannot say this play is not worth seeing. It continues to haunt me, which remains surely its most important purpose. But it was very confusing a lot of the time, and I think could use some work-shopping to hone the text into a more focused whole. Given its topicality, the way it opens one's eyes to what had been unseen, the potential, I hope this happens. While moving, I believe this play could pack a very powerful punch indeed. Right now it only a slap in the face, instead of hitting your chest so hard the heart stops for a second.
White Nights, Black Paradise plays Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm until December 3, 2018 at the Hudson Theatre. 6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood CA 90038.