HOLD THESE TRUTHS at PlayMakers

Every American should see this play, because our Constitutional protections are not always self-evident. The nightmare CAN happen here, and it has.

Joel de la Fuente as Gordon Hirabayashi, et al., in HOLD THESE TRUTHS, at PlayMakers. Photo: Laura Pates.

Joel de la Fuente as Gordon Hirabayashi, et al., in HOLD THESE TRUTHS, at PlayMakers Kenan Theatre, through April 27, 2014. Photo: Laura Pates.

I was in my 30s before I knew that the American government had rounded up innocent people and put them in camps–people other than native Indians, I mean. I knew there was more than plenty bad feeling about the Japanese after the Pearl Harbor bombing that sent the US into WWII. But I’d never heard a peep about the way Japanese-American immigrants and their American children had had been forced to leave everything and locked away, even growing up in a family where legal matters were regularly discussed.

In the last months of grad school, when I was overworked and mentally fried, I picked up a novel in the library instead of working on my thesis, and BOOM, there was the sorry story. Most of the internment camps were in the west, but one was in Arkansas. I mentioned this to my mother, and she said, oh yes, the camp was quite near where we lived. I just couldn’t get over her never having mentioned it, this huge wrong.

Later, sometime in the latter half of the 1990s, I visited the Japanese-American Museum in Los Angeles, and learned much more painful history. There was an exhibit about Gordon Hirabayashi, one of the few Nissei–that is to say, American citizen of Japanese ancestry–who fought the Executive Order (signed by Roosevelt!!!) that removed them from their homes. He lost his case, all the way up the line, the Supreme Court caving to the War Department, his position not being vindicated until decades later.

Jeanne Sakata’s remarkably balanced play about Hirabayashi will be at PlayMakers only through Sunday, April 27, and is highly recommended. Even if you already know the basic story, this particular story will move you. And from a purely aesthetic point of view, watching actor Joel de la Fuente create Hirabayashi young, old and in between, along with all the other characters in the story, is quite wonderful. Here’s my review.

(First published, in a slightly different form, 4/24/14 on indyweek.com, with the title PlayMakers’ Hold These Truths.)

PlayMakers concludes a season remarkable for its thoughtfulness on big topics, whether timely or timeless, with a PRC2 show. Hold These Truths spotlights a particularly sordid episode in 20th century American history, which is shamefully little known, and it offers a lens through which to look at more immediate concerns.

In the nationalistic war fever following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the pre-existing racism in western states against Japanese immigrants and their American children turned rabid. It was only intensified by the U.S. government’s decision to strip Japanese-Americans in states along the Pacific coast of all their property, their livelihoods, their rights as citizens and humans, and corral them into desolate, isolated camps. Desperate, and longing to prove their loyalty to the U.S. by their compliance, nearly 100,000 Issei—first generation immigrants—and Nissei—American born citizens of Japanese parents—packed their two suitcases and journeyed to America’s internment camps to live under armed guard behind barbed wire. Only three Nissei fought back with legal challenges.

One was Gordon Hirabayashi. Actress Jeanne Sakata, herself of Japanese ancestry, stumbled onto his story as an adult, and spent years crafting it into a one-man, one-act play, and herself into a playwright. She was able to interview Hirabayashi repeatedly, and to research his letters and other materials held at the University of Washington, where he had been a college student when war with Japan was declared, and when the infamous Executive Order 9066 was issued, allowing the Secretary of War to designate “military zones” and exclude and evacuate any or all persons—in reality, those of Japanese birth or ancestry.

A young man of unusually tough moral fiber, Hirabayashi believed that as an American he should not, and therefore could not, comply with this forced extirpation. So began his journey through the legal system, in defense of an American ideal that America’s own government was trampling.

Sakata’s play is deeply particular, an intimate telling of a heroic story lived by a captivating person, but its outlines fit other stories. One cannot help but think, today, of Edward Snowden, for instance. But that comes later, because actor Joel de la Fuente, under the direction of the remarkable Lisa Rothe (who directed last season’s powerful Penelope) fully engages your attention for the show’s fast-moving 85 minutes.

The show was first performed in 2007 in Los Angeles, but in 2012 it had an off-Broadway New York premiere at Epic Theatre with Rothe directing and de la Fuente creating the 30 or so characters that people Hirabayashi’s life. PlayMakers’ associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza saw it there and promptly began lobbying to include it in the PRC2 series, where it provides a coda to the year-long consideration of the some of the many forms of power madness, and the many forms of forgiveness possible, once even the shouting is over.

Joel de la Fuente in Jeanne Sakata's HOLD THESE TRUTHS, at PRC. Photo: Laura Pates.

Joel de la Fuente in Jeanne Sakata’s HOLD THESE TRUTHS, at PRC. Photo: Laura Pates.

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