Central Valley

Jonestown Revisited: Evolving play looks at how Modestan turned to cult, suicide

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.

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. Prokes, who wasn't there at the time, killed himself a few months after that in a news conference at a Modesto motel. 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.

In the play, Prokes visits his parents and his friends to talk about what happened with Jones. The play ends with Prokes' suicide.

While White did a lot of research on the subject, including talking with people who knew Prokes and reading several books on Jonestown, the playwright is clear that his work is not a documentary and that much of it is inspired by his imagination. He doesn't know who Prokes talked with when he returned from Jonestown, but imagines what he might have said.

Some of the characters are composites based on several people. But others are real and still living, such as Jim Enochs, who was Prokes' high school government teacher and a former Modesto City Schools District superintendent.

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, who began writing the play in 2007, has produced and directed video projects for such corporations as Bechtel, Levi Strauss & Co. and E.&J. Gallo Winery. He has taught a mass communications and film appreciation class at MJC and has written screenplays, novels, a play and a sitcom pilot that were never produced.

He has bachelor's degrees in English history and Russian literature from the University of California at Davis and a master's degree in educational technology from San Francisco State University.

Friends consulted

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 John- son, 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.

Neither White nor The Bee has been able to reach any of Prokes' family members for a comment on the play.

Prokes was born in Modesto in 1947 and graduated in 1965 from Davis High School, where he was a four-year honor student and member of the football team. He attended MJC, then earned a bachelor of science degree in communications from California State University, Fullerton, in 1969. Friends said he was a member of the Second Church of Christ, Scientist, in Modesto.

He worked as a television reporter in the early 1970s, serving as Stockton bureau chief for KXTV Channel 10. It was through his work that he met Jones and visited Peoples Temple. Shortly after a television interview with the preacher, Prokes submitted his resignation and decided to join the church.

Prokes told reporters at his final news conference that he was an "informant" when he first joined the temple. But he said he didn't remain one long.

"I came to realize that the temple was probably the only hope for the many people it was helping off the streets, off of drugs, out of crime and out of mental institutions, jails and prisons," he told the media.

In Guyana, Prokes had assisted Jones with building a new community, free of the perceived harassment the church was facing in California.

After the mass suicide, Prokes 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.

Two television cameramen pushed the door open and found Prokes crumpled on the floor inside. Bee reporter Bob Bazemore, trained in advanced first aid as a ski patrolman, knelt to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The Bee published a photograph of the scene captured by Bee photographer Debbie Noda.

White's play doesn't spend much time on the press conference but focuses more on who Prokes talked with in the days leading up to the event.

Enochs read an early version of White's play and said he is a little uncomfortable with the way he is portrayed. The drama includes a scene that never happened in which Prokes talks with him right after returning from Jonestown.

Enochs questions topic

Enochs said he understands that playwrights have literary license and he hasn't told White to eliminate his part. But he said he's not sure about the value of putting on a show about the topic.

"It's pretty painful to dredge up again," he said. "The Mike I knew was a pretty idealistic young guy and it was a great tragedy that he got caught up in it."

As a teen, Prokes came to Enochs' house to borrow books. The two lost track of each other after Prokes graduated from high school. Enochs said he was deeply saddened by Prokes' suicide.

Tom Myers, a school friend of Prokes' who still lives in Modesto, said White does a good job of telling the story.

"There wasn't much done on it," Myers said. "There were all the suicides and Mike's own suicide. It never seemed like anybody touched all this in the way that Kenny's doing it. I like it because not everything's answered, just like with Jonestown."

Prokes 'a chameleon'

During the staged reading, some in the audience were bothered by Prokes and the things he did. His wife and adopted son died in Jones- town.

"My take on Mike Prokes is he's a real chameleon, and I talk about that in the play," White said. "I think he really was many things to many people. I think he was a bright, committed person. I think he really believed in the 1960s and was committed to changing things. But I also think he was opportunistic and he thought this would be a story that would help make his reputation. It would be his 15 minutes of fame."

White said there are problematic aspects of Prokes' character. "He is the protagonist of the piece, but he is not necessarily a likable protagonist," White said.

"I would hope that he's sympathetic because, again, he tried to do some things to make a difference and the fact that ultimately he killed himself is just really sad," White said.

"The play ultimately is about forgiveness."

For more about Modesto area arts, visit www.twitter.com/lisamillegan and thehive.modbee.com/artsbeat.

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