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When American History courses arrive at the World War II era, two forms of violent oppression draw the focus: discrimination against African-Americans at home and extermination of Jews abroad. We are taught to remember names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and to honor the price they paid for speaking truth to corrupt power. And yet in view of these astonishing tragedies, we tend to forget a name like Gordon Hirabayashi and the Japanese internment camps that caused his own suffering. Thankfully, PlayMakers Repertory Company’s final show of the season sheds dramatic light on Hirabayashi’s story, and this neglected period of American history’s darker side.
Part of PlayMakers’ PRC2 Second Stage Series, Hold These Truths is a one-man show about Hirabayashi, written by Jeanne Sakata and performed by Joel de la Fuente (whose face will seem familiar to fans of Law and Order: SVU). Sakata tells the full arc of Hirabayashi’s story, beginning with his youthful awareness of racial difference and ending in his later years as a reflective scholar of sociology. The bulk of the narration, however, covers the intervening period, when Hirabayashi resisted forced internment and began challenging the government with patient perseverance. This journey took him through a series of complicated legal battles, one of which deserves mention here. After being sentenced to prison in Arizona, the court declared that no funding could be given for prisoner transport in this case. Hirabayashi could have simply fled; instead, he hitch-hiked his way to an Arizonian prison, arrived two weeks late, was told that his papers were nowhere to be found and he was, well, free to go. He went out to dinner and a movie while they searched for his papers and then he voluntarily stayed for a year of confinement. In the play, this was a welcome moment of comedic relief in an otherwise troubling tale.
Hirabayashi eventually wound up at the Supreme Court, and you don’t need a degree in American History to imagine how successful that venture turned out. Only decades later, long after physical, emotional and psychological scars had set in, did Hirabayashi get his personal vindication in court. But this was “justice” of the lamest sort. There was no removal of pain or suffering for the oppressed, or any guilt or punishment for the oppressors. There was only a call to be the change you wish to see in the world, told from the mouth of one who did just that.
The really striking thing about Hirabayashi, at least in the portrayal given here by Sakata and de la Fuente, was that he was just so normal. He didn’t preach to thousands with soaring rhetoric; he didn’t lay down his life at the hands of Hitler. He just did the right thing, and often in a charming, folksy sort of way.
Here de la Fuente’s acting was absolutely superb. In the span of a few seconds, he could transform his entire being – body, mind, voice – from Hirabayashi-as-narrator to cranky-grandmother-Hirabayashi, to heavily-accented-military-officer, to Hirabayashi-as-old-man. It was a master class in character shift, and without such talent, this show would have been nearly impossible to pull off.
After all, no matter how gripping the story is, one-man shows can quickly become boring and monotonous. Apart from de la Fuente’s frenetic energy, Hold These Truths was aided by a minimalist set and effective lighting changes. The set – three chairs, an overhead light, and a hanging window – kept the focus on de la Fuente’s movement and speech, which carried the narrative momentum. The simple set also allowed the lighting changes to create affecting moods, whether in the red-hot intensity of a courtroom or the sky blue feeling of newfound freedom.
Plays like Hold These Truths can’t erase the damage done, nor can they ensure that there won’t be similar abuses in the future. What they can do, though, is present an artistic witness that exposes the lie of oppression. For no matter how much the U.S. government tried to reduce Hirabayashi to his ethnicity, it couldn’t stop him from telling a story with universal human importance.
Hold These Truths continues through Sunday, April 27. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.