San Francisco, CA to the World – “The nail that sticks out… is the one that gets harmed” is the teaching the late sociologist Gordon Hirabayashi received as a child from his father in learning, as Japanese-American citizen, to “live a life that’s integrated…”
Little did Hirabayashi know that, as an adult, these words would come back to haunt him as both warning and catalyst to propel him to take action putting at risk that thing he held most high: his American citizenship.
Jeanne Sakata’s riveting and impactful one-man play Hold These Truths chronicles Hirabayashi’s life as second-generation Japanese-American citizen and University of Washington student during World War II. When the country of Japan sent bombers to Pearl Harbor, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt put into effect Executive Order 9066. Designed to prevent potential espionage, this legislation controlled not only the activities of anyone of even “1/16th” Japanese origin living in the Northwest but eventually also demanded physical removal of entire families from their homes and containment in camps with armed guards. It is surprising to discover that not everyone remembers- or even knows of- these events.
Built on a script using hours of material from Sakata’s interviews with the late Gordon Hirabayashi before his 2012 death, Hold These Truths is engaging to a degree that is almost painful with its intimate glimpses into what happens when someone has his political heart broken along with denial of expected civil rights. Jomar Tagatac expertly recounts and narrates in soliloquy Hirabayashi’s stories and also speaks from the perspective of other, real life characters involved in those stories. He draws us in completely, and we’re given to be even further appalled at what Hirabayashi endured via Tagatac’s skillful character portrayal: bewilderment, shock, utter despair in rendering reaction to the context of the stripping of civil rights. Empathic audience members be aware: it is one thing to hear the tale of an innocent person suffering; it is quite another to watch it unfolding before one’s eyes..
At first, idealistic Quaker Hirabayashi’s world is turned upside-down as he is refused a job at the local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) club- a job for which he is more than qualified- because he is of Japanese origin. That is enough to create audience discomfort, but the injustice, recounted expertly by Tagatac on stage, goes further. Hirabayashi’s own containment- despite his being “second generation”Japanese- begins in the form of curfew, a nightly lock-down that took place from 8pm and lasted until 6pm, for “all Jap’s.” (How this viewer cringed at the sound of that awful term.)
Submissive and obedient because of his love for his new country, Hirabayashi was nonetheless plagued by the belittlement of his fellow white students on campus as he ran from his studies at the library to take timely cover in his dorm room, then ultimately ordered to internment camp. Out of heartbreak for what he saw (and was later proven) as a wandering from the rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution, Hirabayashi entered into principled resistance, was jailed, and began litigation with the United States government in Hirabayashi vs. United States.
“Barbed wire surrounds the fairgrounds we used to visit in the summers,” Tagatac as Hirabayashi tells us as he begins his description of what he has seen while volunteering with the Quaker group to assist detainees begin the internment process. “Like pigs, like cattle, they put them into horse stalls,” he says. “Anyone with as much as 1/16 blood must go…” he says, wielding his freshman year Civics text. “How can this be?” he implores… “Tule Lake… there are lines- lines for everything: lines for meals, lines for toilets… and watchtowers with guns…”
Gordon Hirabayashi was one of only three Japanese Americans who did not comply with Executive Order 9066. He lost his case fighting detainment taken to the U.S. Supreme Court at that time. He served a prison sentence- a nightmare brought upon his American dream that, perhaps, none of us could fully comprehend. It was not until 1987, and his relocation to Canada, that the case ruling was overturned. Eventually, Hirabayashi would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his persistence. But, along the way to that…? We can only imagine…
Hold These Truths is a thoughtful and moving production for lovers of peace and social justice, yes. But it may well also serve to remind everyone of the value of our citizenship – as well, of the wisdom in the statements made from the bench during the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling: ”ancestry is not a crime” and “guilt is personal, not inheritable…”
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Preamble to the Declaration of Independence
Hold These Truths runs through July 7th- both live, in-theater, tickets and On Demand tickets are offered. For ticket information please visit the SF Playhouse web site at www.sfplayhouse.com.
HOLD THESE TRUTHS
By Jeanne Sakata
Directed by Jeffrey Lo
Starring Jomar Tagatac
ABOUT IN-PERSON PERFORMANCES
Hold These Truths is the first production that San Francisco Playhouse will present for in-person audiences since the Coronavirus pandemic began. We are hard at work expanding our health and safety protocols to welcome audiences back inside on June 8th, 2021. Masks and social distancing will be required at all performances of Hold These Truths, and our box office staff is developing mechanisms by which audience members will be seated apart from one another. Please find a detailed overview of our COVID Safety Protocols here.
Photos courtesy of San Francisco Playhouse
Note from the writer: If interested in other reading on this topic, check out Two Days and One Suitcase: The True Story of One Family’s Choice of Friendship and Goodwill During World War II by Helen Hannan Parra with Anne E. Neuberger