Jonestown Revisited: Evolving play looks at the Guyana tragedy

While reading an exposé about San Francisco preacher and cult leader Jim Jones in 1977, Ken White was surprised to see mention of an old friend from Modesto, California. Michael Prokes, who had attended Davis High School with White, was a spokesman for Jones’ People’s Temple and praised its work with the poor. On Nov. 18, 1978, more than 900 followers of Jones died in a mass suicide in their compound in the South American country of Guyana. After the mass suicide, Prokes (pictured above) returned to Modesto and invited the media to attend a news conference in a motel March 13, 1979. Prokes walked to the bathroom immediately after reading a five-page statement praising Jones. As he walked out, he pulled the plug on one of the television lights. Seconds later, reporters heard a gunshot. He was 31.

White, who lives in Modesto, never forgot the story and has turned it into a play, “My Father’s House,” which he hopes to stage locally next fall. Set in Modesto, the drama focuses on the last days of Prokes’ life. The title comes from the Bible verse John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. I thought at the time, this would make an interesting screenplay or novel,” said White, 61. “Here’s a Modesto kid involved in all this interesting stuff. I sort of tucked it away and didn’t do anything with it until now.”

White has enlisted support for his play from some of Prokes’ friends, local theater groups and faculty members from Modesto Junior College and California State University, Stanislaus. Many participated in a private staged reading of the play at MJC in July. “It works as a historical drama that connects really close to home and it also serves as a warning about blindly following a charismatic leader and a cult,” said Jim Johnson, a professor emeritus and former MJC dean of the Arts, Humanities and Communications Division, who directed the staging. “That’s all still with us today.”

While Johnson believes the play has many flaws that need to be fixed, he said MJC is definitely interested in staging a production and is considering entering it eventually in the San Francisco Fringe Festival.

White is in the process of rewriting the play based on comments he got from the summer reading.

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