photo by Lia Chang
In 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which mandated the detention of Japanese-Americans in prison camps. A University of Washington student named Gordon Hirabayashi chose not to obey either the “order for evacuation” to a camp or the curfew that Japanese-Americans were subject to. With the help of the ACLU he fought his case as far as the Supreme Court, where the judges decided unanimously against him. Later, he declined to return an oath of allegiance that Japanese-Americans alone were required to return, and he was again convicted.
40 years later a college professor notified Hirabayashi that he had discovered evidence that the government had suppressed evidence in Hirabayashi’s case. Ultimately, a federal court reversed both convictions.
The Hang a Tale company has produced Hold These Truths, a solo show by Jeanne Sakata presenting these events in Hirabayashi’s life. The bulk of the extended (90 minutes) monologue is spoken by the character of Hirabayashi himself. We meet him as a student and get to know him as he relates his story. Along the way we meet his parents and a few other characters.
Hirabayashi found a spiritual home with the Quakers, and he talks to us about “Quaker mysticism and Quaker optimism”, and “our Quaker philosophy of life.” He was, indeed, one of the century’s great American Quakers. He insisted on being imprisoned, and requested a longer sentence then he received. Indeed, he hitch-hiked to prison when the government couldn’t afford his transportation, preferring to work outdoors in Arizona than to be held indoors up north.
Hold These Truths does a great job of relating most of these these events, although it’s unclear about the specifics around Hirabayashi’s sentencings. It takes us from the experiences of the young man who is turned away from shops because of his ethnicity to his refusal of the order for evacuation, and then from his detainment at an assembly center (where the watchtowers held “guards with guns facing in”) to his brutal experience in the heat of the Arizona prison.
The actor, Joel de la Fuente, is directed by Lisa Rothe, and the team work with exquisite precision. With detailed analysis, every moment of Mr. de la Fuente’s performance is exact and focused. Whether he’s assuming a physicalization or a dialect, he’s utterly meticulous. Not a word of the script is superfluous, and likewise not a moment of the acting is heavy-handed or excessive.
However, the play is as cerebral and dispassionate as a newspaper article. Ms Rothe has allowed Mr. de la Fuente not a moment of irony. He relates the various events without ever commenting on them. He never shows what he feels at the moment, aside from the moment when he realizes that to America “I am nothing but a Jap”. And so there’s no tension between the words and the actor’s intention.
There’s no moral tension either, since it goes without saying that we’re on Hirabayashi’s side. Perhaps if Ms. Sakata had made more of the moment when the government offers to release his family if he recants, or when he visits his girlfriend on the way to prison, the character and we might experience some conflict.
At any rate, there are some nice moments of poetry in the script - “birds trilling as if celebrating the state of being free” and “I seek to live as if the ought to be is.”
Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’ set - no more than three wooden chairs and a window floating above - and Cat Tate Starmer’s evocative lighting work very well. It’s a highly minimalist stage with an impassioned red floor.
And so Hold These Truths engages us intellectually but not emotionally. We learn a lot from this play. Ms. Sakata has done well to praise an obscure dissident. It’s the proper function of theater to celebrate noble people and - as the Quakers say - “to answer to that of God in every man.”