Theater review: PlayMakers' Hold These Truths


Joel de la Fuente in Hold These Truths - PHOTO BY LIA CHANG
  • photo by Lia Chang
  • Joel de la Fuente in Hold These Truths
Hold These Truths
PlayMakers at Kenan Theatre
Through April 27

PlayMakers concludes a season remarkable for its thoughtfulness on big topics, whether timely or timeless, with a PRC2 Series production. Hold These Truths spotlights a particularly sordid, shamefully little-known episode in 20th-century American history, and offers a lens through which to look at more immediate concerns.

In the nationalistic war fever after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the racism of western states toward Japanese immigrants and their American children turned rabid. It was only intensified by the U.S. government’s decision to strip Japanese-Americans in states along the Pacific coast of all their property, their livelihoods and their rights, corralling them into desolate, isolated camps.

Desperate and longing to prove their loyalty to the U.S., nearly 100,000 Issei (first generation immigrants) and Nissei (American born citizens of Japanese parents) compliantly packed their two permitted suitcases and journeyed to America’s internment camps to live under armed guard behind barbed wire. Only three Nissei fought back with legal challenges.

One was Gordon Hirabayashi. Actress Jeanne Sakata, herself of Japanese ancestry, stumbled onto his story as an adult and spent years crafting it into a one-man, one-act play, meanwhile crafting herself into a playwright. She interviewed Hirabayashi repeatedly, and researched his letters and other materials held at the University of Washington, where he had been a college student when war with Japan was declared and the infamous Executive Order 9066 was issued, allowing the Secretary of War to designate “military zones” and exclude or evacuate any persons—in reality, those of Japanese birth or ancestry.

A young man of unusually tough moral fiber, Hirabayashi believed that as an American he should not, and therefore could not, comply with this forced extirpation. So began his journey through the legal system, in defense of an American ideal that America’s own government was trampling.

Sakata’s play is deeply particular—an intimate telling of a heroic story lived by a captivating person. But its outlines fit other stories. For instance, one cannot help but think of Edward Snowden today. But that comes later, because actor Joel de la Fuente, under the direction of the remarkable Lisa Rothe (who directed last season’s powerful Penelope), fully engages your attention for a fast-moving 85 minutes.

The show was first performed in 2007 in Los Angeles, but in 2012, it had an off-Broadway New York premiere at Epic Theatre, with Rothe directing and de la Fuente creating the 30 or so characters that people Hirabayashi’s life. PlayMakers’ associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza saw it there and promptly began lobbying to include it in PRC2, where it provides a coda to the company's year-long consideration of the many forms of power madness—and the many forms of forgiveness possible, once even the shouting is over.

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