When playwright and actress Jeanne Sakata asked her father about his teen years during World War II incarcerated at Arizona’s Poston Relocation Center, all he ever said were “very dirty” and one-word answers.
It wasn’t until years later, when Sakata saw the documentary “A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi vs. the United States” by John de Graaf, that Sakata knew she wanted to see Hirabayashi’s story on the American stage.
The documentary film inspired Sakata to write a one-person play, “Hold These Truths,” which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The 90-minute play featuring one actor playing 37 characters examines how Hirabayashi, then a young college student at the University of Washington, challenged the constitutionality of the forced relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II all the way to the Supreme Court.
“I had no idea there was a story like this, that something like this had happened during World War II,” Sakata said. “I might have heard Gordon’s name in passing but I didn’t know the details of the story. And it was such a compelling and beautiful and fascinating story, so full of all different kinds of emotion and humanity and humor.”
Gordon always saw his story as an American story. He was fighting his case, he felt, not just for himself but on behalf of all Americans who might encounter persecution in the future.
An acting job brought Sakata to Seattle in the ‘90s, and she met and interviewed Hirabayashi. He was so warm and such a good storyteller that those conversations with him “filled in a lot of psychic gaps” in her own family’s story, she said.
When “Hold These Truths” first premiered in 2007 at East West Players in Los Angeles, Sakata saw the play as a period piece shining a light on a chapter of history that many people did not know.
But in the past few years, the play has seen a resurgence of interest. Since 2015, the play has had multiple productions and readings across the country, including Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Juneau and Anchorage, Alaska; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and Pasadena, California.
The play is currently running at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in New York City and the Lyric Stage in Boston, and in early 2018, the play will have its Washington, D.C., premiere at Arena Stage.
“In the last few years, as our country has lurched to the right politically, we have seen this story, Gordon’s story, become more and more immediately relevant. It seems almost like it’s a direct response to that is happening today,” Sakata said.
Part of the appeal of the play, which Jessica Kubzansky, the director of the original production and the upcoming production in Washington, calls “a love story between a man and his Constitution,” is the deeply principled character of Hirabayashi, firmly anchored in his Quaker faith.
“Gordon Hirabayashi is a case study in principled resistance to violations from an overreaching government,” Benny Sato Ambush, director of the Lyric Stage production in Boston, said. “He singlehandedly took a knee, not just for his people, but for all Americans, who should be treated equally under the mandates of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Another appeal of the play is the ability of theater to reflect current concerns.
Actor Joel de la Fuente, who portrayed Hirabayashi in the 2017 Sheen Center production in New York, said that while there are many ways to learn about Hirabayashi, “theater is unique in that it should reflect the needs and stories of the community around it, and this story is a story that continues to resonate.”
“Plays change with time, and what started out as a piece of neglected history has turned into a screaming cautionary tale,” Kubzansky, the director, noted. “There’s a line in the play where Gordon says, ‘And I’ll say it again, ancestry is not a crime.’ And never more than right now do we need to hear those words.”
Actors Ryun Yu — who originated the role — and Greg Watanabe both portrayed Hirabayashi at the time of the 2016 presidential election and found that the election changed the meaning of the role.
“When we first did this play 10 years ago, I’m sure people felt it was a nice, safe historical document. It happened in the past, they took care of it, no worries,” Yu said. “We were performing in Portland during the election. I walked out to 27 text messages and everything had changed.”
“When the 2016 presidential election provided bone-chilling proof of the racist backlash to Barack Obama's presidency, I almost felt it was almost a patriotic duty to perform ‘Hold These Truths,’” Watanabe said. “The relevance of Gordon's story and his acts of resistance and idealism in the face of pervasive racism and injustice is sobering.”
The significance of bringing Hirabayashi’s story to Washington, D.C., the seat of the federal government, next spring is particularly powerful, Kubzansky noted.
“Gordon gets his heart broken by what he thought might be a failure of his Constitution, and then he found a different understanding of it and a different way to love it,” she said. “And for those of us who are dealing with it as a living, breathing document right now, I think that’s an incredibly important story to be telling in the halls where it is kept.”
In the last few years, as our country has lurched to the right politically, we have seen this story, Gordon’s story, become more and more immediately relevant.
Although Hirabayashi was criticized by the Japanese-American community at the time, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2012, and Sakata noted his story is perceived as a patriotic call to action for all Americans today.
“The Constitution and promises contained therein are easily threatened by racism and hysteria,” Sakata said. “It doesn’t matter what period of time you are living in — whether it is 1946 or today — but with so much of what we hold dear today under attack, the story is calling out to us to make the Constitution a personal matter in each of our hearts and in our lives.”
“Gordon always saw his story as an American story,” she added. “He was fighting his case, he felt, not just for himself but on behalf of all Americans who might encounter persecution in the future.”