‘White Nights, Black Paradise’: Moral Dilemma, Social Impact, and the African-American Women of the Jonestown Massacre

Contributed by Kevin Hopps

How can this happen? How can one man charm, fool, and betray so many people? If you follow the news, you know these are questions on many people’s minds today. And they’re also the questions that White Nights, Black Paradise, attempts to answer. But it’s not about the same man who has so many people worried today. It’s about the Reverend Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple.

Sikivu (meaning: “teachable” and pronounced: “See-key-voo”) Hutchinson is an academic (receiving her PhD from New York University), a lecturer, an educator, an activist (she formed the Black Skeptics group in 2010), an author, and a playwright, whose powerful new play White Nights, Black Paradise (based on her 2015 speculative fiction novel of the same name) is debuting at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Hollywood (6539 Santa Monica Blvd.). Unfortunately, it’s a limited run, so you only have three opportunities to see the play, which is directed by William White: opening night, Friday, November 30 at 8pm; Saturday, December 1 at 8pm; and Sunday, December 2 at 3pm.

Photo credit: Alternative Considerations of Jonestown

Most people today are only aware of Jones and the Temple because of the massacre at the Jonestown settlement in Guyana, South America, forty years ago, in November of 1978, where a mass murder-suicide took the lives of over 900 people. What most people don’t know is that the majority of those who died were African-American women. And there’s a lot more that people don’t know about the Temple and what led up to the tragic events of Jonestown. Sikivu’s play, provides us with a lot of this information, answers a lot of troubling questions.

The play opens at Dover Delaware Air Force Base, a military base, where the Jonestown victims’ bodies were shipped after the massacre. A night watchwoman bangs on an old TV, trying to get better reception, as if she were asking, “What’s wrong with this picture?” But, although the play opens at what many would consider the end of the Peoples Temple, the majority of play, close to three quarters, focuses on the Temple in the 1970s, dealing with the politics in the Fillmore, San Francisco area, before Jones moved his followers to Guyana.

The play follows two sisters, Hy (played by Charlotte Williams) and Taryn (played by Darnell Rhea Williams), who become members of the Peoples Temple. Through them, the play explores the relationships, moral dilemmas, and politics of a multi-generational and a multifaceted group of African-American women. And, to help us follow along, we’re provided with a Greek Chorus of black women, who weigh in on the play’s unfolding events.

White Nights, Black Paradise helps explain the appeal of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, which reached out to the disenfranchised, to those suffering due to the social economic issues, job discrimination, and to those experiencing an urban renewal movement, which was seen by many as an excuse to rip people from their homes. And those who were most impacted by these tumultuous times were blacks. As it turns out, Jones and the Temple were in the right place at the right time. People were eager to find someone on their side, someone who could promise them hope.

Jones and the Temple drew in people from all walks of life, although primarily African-Americans. Although the Peoples Temple started off in Indianapolis in the 1950s as Pentecostal, it became nondenominational by the time it moved to San Francisco. The members included professionals, hippies, the disenfranchised, the religious, and atheists.

Full of contradictions, full of paradoxes, Jones appealed to different factions at different times. It wasn’t just about his charlatanism. He was actually fighting for civil rights; speaking out against the assorted injustices facing those living in San Francisco during the troublesome 1970s. Specifically, Jim Jones was providing black women with a way to make a difference. Or so it seemed.

White Nights, Black Paradise was first workshopped at the Robey Theater Playwright Workshop, where Sikivu fine-tuned her dialog and story until she felt it ready to be performed in public. It is now ready.

Photo (above): Sikivu Hutchinson and cast of White Nights Black Paradise

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