By Jeanne Sakata. Directed by Lisa Rothe. An Umami Fund production. At the Cultch Historic Theatre on Friday, October 18. Continues until November 2
February 1942. Two months after the events of Pearl Harbor, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt initiates Executive Order 9066, a decree that excludes all persons at its discretion from select areas. Under the command of Lt.-Gen. John DeWitt, the order escalates into a curfew for all people of Japanese descent, kick-starting an eventual forced relocation that is the Japanese-American internment. Gordon Hirabayashi, a University of Washington student, is among the few dissenters who flatly refuse to comply with what they deem an unconstitutional protocol.
Hold These Truths chronicles his legal fight against the government, illustrating his journey before, during, and after these wartime measures. (Hirabayashi is the father of well-known local Kokoro Dance cofounder Jay Hirabayashi.)
A man of the Quaker faith, Gordon (Joel de la Fuente) recalls advice his father once gave him: “The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit.” As a nisei, or child of Japanese immigrants, he differs from his parents in that he believes in righteousness even at the risk of protrusion. Having experienced discrimination regularly in Seattle, Gordon is revitalized when he finds that his differences on the streets of Manhattan, on a trip to New York City, are socioeconomic and not racial. Thus, when Japan embroils the U.S. in World War II and his civil rights are at risk, acquiescence is far from consideration.
Playwright Jeanne Sakata structures her solo work primarily around Gordon’s legal battles, from his surrender to the FBI for violation of curfew to his time served in the King County jail, to a unanimous guilty verdict in Hirabayashi v. United States, and later legal troubles from refusing to fill in a biased draft-board questionnaire.
Between these proceedings, she draws on his relationships with college girlfriend Esther Schmoe, best friend Howie Scott, and parents Shungo and Mitsuko Hirabayashi, all acted by de la Fuente. With a litany of legal aids and formal undertakings, the play reflects the challenges of dramatizing abstruse affairs, its strength mostly pooled in Gordon’s visceral responses.
De la Fuente is a consummate solo performer, flipping between characters young and old at a moment’s notice, whether to embody Gordon Hirabayashi at various stages of his life or anyone he has encountered on his trek, equally at home as a drunken college schoolmate or a stern government official.
Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s scenic design is beautifully minimalist, with three ladder-back chairs on a crimson carpet representing everything from a college campus to a high-rise elevator. Lighting designer Cat Tate Starmer uses a gradient backdrop to convey appropriate emotions, morphing from the liberty green of blithe sightseeing to the blood-red news of impending war. Signs of urban and rural life colour Daniel Kluger’s sound design, coupled with the distinct rasp of broadcast pronouncements and jazz standards.
Alluding to the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, Hold These Truths is a sobering look at institutional prejudice and how one man’s persistence inspired an entire generation to hold fast to immutable ideals, hard as it may be in the most trying times. To quote Gordon’s addendum to his father’s adage, “The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit… unless the hammer is smaller than the nail.”