Thank You, Dad – So Terribly Betrayed
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
Lance Bankerd doesn’t so much play Jim Jones (the cult leader who was the direct cause of death of 918 of his followers in November 1978) profiled in Aladrian C. Wetzel’s Thank You, Dad, up at Baltimore Theater Project. Bankerd engages with him, struggles with him, confronts him and, in the end, channels him. I didn’t know Jones, but I feel like I’ve met him. No, more accurately, I feel like he’s been forced upon me. I feel like his slimy, cheap theatrics and bible beating dramatics and (yes) common sense, if terribly mangled, points regarding how socialism makes sense if you think about it, especially considering how fucking racist this country is, have crawled into my heart and died there. The spirit is upon me, oh, yes, it bubbles up out of this bravura performance, and it is not a ghost that rests easy. When the lights came up I was unclear whether I should clap or perform a goddamned exorcism.
Much is made of the concept of “immersive” theater, the idea that the audiences may directly interact with the actors and surroundings to influence a theatrical narrative. This is especially hot in Baltimore right now, and it’s usually done with a certain sense of whimsy: cute puppets, fun seances, witty costuming. Dad is immersive, all right, but there’s nothing whimsical about it. Wetzel has curated hundreds of hours of transcripts and recordings into a somewhat rambling 90 minutes or so (one great thing about a megalomaniac is that they leave a lot of documentation). When Bankerd steps up to preach in the second act, we are there, man, we are the acolytes of the People’s Temple, treated to an hour long sermon that keeps winding up and up and up, somehow. Jones did not speak for God, Jones believed that he was God, and, tellingly, the first time Bankerd says this, the audience laughs. But not the second time.
We don’t laugh then because the reality of what’s going to happen sinks in, and, as funny as Jones could occasionally be (and Bankerd knows when and how to use this tendency to gallows humor), the third act is grim af, and the most tightly directed by Donna Ibale and Lee Conderacci. The wheels that were set in motion the minute the doors to the People’s Temple swung open in 1955 were about to come to a chaotic, grinding, harrowing halt. Bankerd nails Jones as tired, dissociating, his human skin slipping off to reveal the monster under it all, the one that demanded, and received, a huge sacrifice on the alter of its ego. It’s in the third act, and only then, that we hear the voices of Jones’ followers (rerecorded by actors, even though the actual death tape exists, in a move that I think is the correct one). It surprised me how thirsty I was to hear them, how much I wanted to know more about them. By the end, I was fatigued with Jones, I didn’t want to listen to him anymore. I’d heard enough.
A performance like Bankerd’s is sort of like a photo realistic painting; it can quickly turn into an empty trick for the eyes, impressive in detail but lacking in information. Wetzel is a good playwright, she could have made up the story, filled in the cracks, but she frustratingly doesn’t do that. She wants us to live in that frustration, to place ourselves inside of a moment of history. She doesn’t allow us the luxury of distance, or reflection, instead brutally thrusting us into the shoes of the members of the People’s Temple, allowing us to feel for ourselves Jones’ pull, his intoxicating, furious heartbeat. And after all that, in many ways, Jim Jones stubbornly remains as opaque as his sunglassed eyes, an irresistible enigma that popular culture returns to over and over, a scab we can’t help picking at.
THE BOTTOM LINE: I know it’s only January, but I think Thank You, Dad contains one of the best performances of the year from Lance Bankerd as the Reverend Jim Jones. Aladrian C. Wetzel’s daringly spare script, comprised solely of primary source documents left by Jones, is bare-bones effective. The combination results in a haunting production, one that will leave a searing after-image for years to come.