The opening line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, of HOLD THESE TRUTHS, Jeanne Sakata’s inspiring, 90-minute, solo-performance dramatization of the life of Gordon Hirabayashi who, of Japanese ancestry, challenged incarceration by his own government in World War II, arrives disarmingly.
Without spoiling the deft staging of how the line is delivered, it’s fair to say that director Lisa Roethe pointedly introduces Hirabyashi as one of us. The irony is that his story rests on being the “other”, growing up on a struggling family farm in rural Washington state as a nisei (US citizen, second generation Japanese) of issei (first generation immigrants) parents. As a teenager, he joins the Quakers. At university in Seattle, discrimination isn’t so obvious, and on a college trip to Manhattan in 1939 he delights in race-blind freedom. Returning west, he's rejected for a job because he's "Japanese". With the threat of war across Europe, he becomes a conscientious objector. When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt orders all residents, including citizens, with as little as 1/16th Japanese ancestry to the camps. Hirabayashi resists incarceration. Imprisonment then a decade of lawsuits ensues, with Hirabayashi trying to assert his right as an American citizen. His loses in two separate Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s
Hirabyashi’s saga, beautifully acted by Joel de la Fuente, who plays Chief Inspector Kido on Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, plumbs the question - what’s so self-evident about the truths we hold about our country? It’s a natural companion piece to the Tony-nominated, autobiographical play WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME in which playwright Heidi Schrek contemplates her relationship to the founding document through her personal struggle and multi-generations of women in her family.
Playwright Sakata not only infuses Hirabayashi’s tale with narrative momentum but also explicates accessibly the legal twists and turns Hiraybashi’s cases took. The open-faced de la Fuente humanizes Hiryabashi completely - the pain of being called “you’re no more than a Jap”, the guilt of subjecting his parents in the camps to extra-scrutiny by the US military, the joy of falling in love in college. De la Fuente plays about a dozen characters - from his parents (dipping into Japanese occasionally), to lawyers, prison guards, ACLU benefactors, even his jock college roommate -each with appropriate dialect. (I was particularly amused by the WASP patrician accent of his lawyer.) The power of de la Fuente’s impeccably calibrated performance lies in its understatement. Lisa Rothe directs quietly, sensitively, simply; de la Fuente uses just three 1940s style, wooden office chairs and an old, battered suitcase as props to relate his life journey.
Hirayabashi lives a quite life as university professor until his case is unexpectedly and favorably resolved forty years later. He holds neither rancor nor malice to his countrymen who denied his rights. With Zen-like forbearance Hirayabiashi accepts that America’s search for self evident truths is imperfect. Modestly he observes “I seek to live as though the ought to be, is” - wise words for these confounding, dismaying times.
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