Sakata’s play about Gordon Hirabayashi, ‘Hold These Truths’

By Laura Ohata
Northwest Asian Weekly

Homecoming for a Civil Rights icon Gordon Hirabayashi

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Jeanne Sakata (Photo by Lia Chang)

Imagine that it is April in 1942, and the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor only four months ago. You are a 24-year-old student at the University of Washington studying at a library, when your classmates remind you to go home by 8:00 p.m. It is past curfew and your parents are from Japan. This is the situation faced by Gordon Hirabayashi in the play, “Hold These Truths,” written by Jeanne Sakata and directed by Lisa Rothe.

Based on a true story, “Hold These Truths” is a play that chronicles Gordon Hirabayashi’s struggle to maintain his constitutional rights to liberty and due process. At the time, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were stripped of their possessions and sent to internment camps without trial. Garnering critical acclaim for performances from New York to Honolulu, “Hold These Truths” will finally come home to Seattle, where the story begins.

In 1942, Gordon Hirabayashi not only broke the curfew, but he also refused to follow exclusion orders. Accompanied by his lawyer, Arthur Barnett, Gordon Hirabayashi, a 24-year-old college student, turned himself in to the local FBI office, along with a written statement of protest. He chose to go to prison and challenge the U.S. government in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Professor of Asian Studies at UCLA and Gordon’s nephew, Lane Ryo Hirabayashi says, “I’ve seen Jeanne’s play a number of times… For me, ‘Hold These Truths’ is a terrific introduction to a young man who decided to stand up for the U.S. Constitution and then had to serve time as his initial reward for that refusal.” Part of a family of scholars, Lane himself collaborated with James A. Hirabayashi in editing a book compilation of Gordon’s letters called “A Principled Stand.”

Sakata rendered Gordon Hirabayashi’s optimism and humor in the darkest of circumstances when writing “Hold These Truths.” “I was continually fascinated by the way he encountered racism and the creative ways he took to work his way through it,” says Sakata. “He never demonized those trying to oppress him. As a Quaker, he had a real concern for the person on the other side of the table. He would say, ‘Look, I know you are just trying to do your job. But I have my principles, so I can’t do what you are asking of me. I am sorry to make this difficult for you.’ He had this spiritual light and maturity… to be creative and compassionately push back against the racism.”

Forty years later, proof that the U.S. government had “suppressed, altered, and destroyed” evidence during Hirabayashi’s Supreme Court Case emerged with the publication of “Justice at War,” by Peter Irons, PhD, with archival researcher Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. In1984, when Gordon Hirabayashi went back to court to have his convictions overturned, Kathryn Bannai represented Gordon Hirabayashi as the lead attorney on his legal team. Bannai says, “Gordon had the opportunity… to address the court, and he used it to make the point that the lessons of the forcible removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans extend beyond Japanese Americans and their experience. He referred to how, during the hostage crisis in Iran, there was talk of interning persons of Iranian ancestry.”

In spite of spending years representing Gordon Hirabayashi, when asked about her favorite anecdotes about the civil rights icon, Bannai defers to Sakata’s play, “I have seen “Hold These Truths” three or four times on the East Coast and I am always struck by her ability to capture Gordon’s story and connect the audience to our shared humanity and the link in social justice and the power of one individual to make a difference.”

Sakata says that she was initially inspired to write a play about Gordon Hirabayashi when she saw a television documentary entitled, ‘A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi vs. United States’ in the 1990s. “I was absolutely fascinated,” says Sakta. “As a child growing up in the 1960s, I had heard of Rosa Parks and other civil rights icons. Here I was, a Japanese American, and I had never heard of Gordon Hirabayashi.

Shortly after, I heard about a book by Dr. Peter Irons called ‘The Courage of Their Conviction.’ He played a very important part in taking Gordon Hirabayashi’s case to court.” The experience led Jeanne Sakata, a professional actress, to spend 10 years researching and writing the play.

When Sakata wrote “Hold These Truths,” solo plays were considered innovative. Within the span of 90-minutes, one actor must reprise 36 distinct characters from various backgrounds, genders, ages, and ethnicities. Joel de la Fuente, the star in the Seattle staging at ACT Theater, and an Asian American himself, says, “The play demands that I bring everything I have.” Joel de la Fuente is best known for starring opposite Parker Posey in the feature film “Personal Velocity,” as well as recurring television roles in Hemlock Grove and Law & Order SVU. Of “Hold These Truths,” De la Fuente says, “One of the reasons I love doing this play is that it asks so much of me as a person and a performer… It’s a marathon, a mountain to climb. It is an exciting challenge every night.”

Sakata was inspired to write “Hold These Truths” in part because of her own background as a Japanese American. She says, “I think that I grew up in a family where these things were not discussed. I grew up not being able to articulate their experience because it wasn’t really talked about. You can pick up that sense of shame or internalized guilt, or the desire not to speak of those times…” Sakata says that as a Japanese American, she never felt that she could speak out for herself, or be assertive in certain situations. “Gordon often compared the World War II experience of Japanese Americans to people who had gone through violence and other forms of trauma,” says Sakata. “In that sense, working on Gordon’s story was very healing and redemptive as a sansei (third-generation Japanese).” (end)

“Hold These Truths” runs from July 31st until August 3rd at the ACT Theater.

On August 1st, a special post-play discussion panel will feature Jeanne Sakata, Stephen Sumida, and Frank Abe, presented with the Wing Luke Museum.

On August 2nd, actor and playwright Jeanne Sakata will share her experiences researching and writing “Hold These Truths” in an afternoon lecture.

Purchase tickets by calling 206-292-7676

The ACT Theater is located at the intersection of 7th & Union in downtown Seattle
700 Union Street, Seattle, WA 98101

For more information, visit: http://www.acttheatre.org/tickets/onstage/holdthesetruths.

Laura Ohata can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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