The first time Gordon Hirabayashi realized he was of Japanese ancestry, he was four or five years old. That moment of knowing you’re seen as “other” is a common experience for those in any minority group in this world of jostling, prejudiced humans. The interior journey away from shame is vividly delineated in Jeanne Sakata’s play Hold These Truths, which dramatizes the true story of Hirabayashi’s principled and lonely legal fight against the U.S. government after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 established curfews and forced the relocation of 120,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II.
The show, named after a key passage in the Declaration of Independence, makes its D.C. debut at Arena Stage and brings back director Jessica Kubzansky and Korean-American actor Ryun Yu from the play’s 2007 world premiere in Los Angeles. In a tour-de-force solo performance across 90 minutes, Yu commands the stage with a vigorous physicality, comic impressions of dozens of varied American characters, and dramatic gravitas. His emotive performance pulls in the audience, garnering chuckles in lighter moments and hushed focus during the obsidian apex of Hold These Truths—when Hirabayashi learns he has lost his case before the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous decision. The line this hero utters in stunned reaction—that the people running the country see him as “no more than” a racist epithet—lingers long after the show ends.
Hirabayashi, a Quaker, a student interrupted at the University of Washington, an asker of questions who turns himself into the FBI, likes banana cream pie. He’s a guy who read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet by the light of the moon while hitchhiking 1,600 miles from Seattle to the federal marshal’s office in Tucson, Arizona, to serve time before the Supreme Court agreed to take his case.
Shaken to his clear-eyed, idealistic core, Hirabayashi does not let his disillusionment turn into a cynical loss of belief in his principles. Instead, he begins to see America’s political institutions as the people in them, “endowed with all the noble and ignoble qualities of other human beings,” he says in the play. “Most importantly, I begin to distinguish between the Constitution … and the people entrusted to uphold it.”
In the 1980s, a discovery that the federal government deliberately suppressed evidence that Japanese-Americans posed no threat to national security leads to a phone call from constitutional law and civil liberties scholar Peter Irons: Does Hirabayashi want to reopen his case? By then a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta who has settled with his family in Canada, Hirabayashi tells Irons: “I’ve been waiting for your call for 40 years. Let’s go.”
In 1987, when his two convictions for violating the curfew and failing to report for evacuation are reversed, the same Seattle courtroom, now packed with supporters, erupts in cheers. Headlines, press conferences, and an interview on 60 Minutes follow. (In May 2012, months after his death at 93, Hirabayashi was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.)
There’s a curious juxtaposition of this necessary lesson from American history being performed by one actor on a simple wooden stage with the contemporary art feel of its light-based backdrop—a glowing screen that changes colors distractingly. The effective sound design by John Zalewski, with thunder and birdsong, helps the audience to imagine the action more fully and the resourceful costumes, based on the original designs of Soojin Lee, balance the era’s style with fabric in an on-trend greige.
A third-generation Japanese American, Sakata dedicated Hold These Truths to the memory of her parents. The love that went into this engrossing, inspiring play is striking. It surely wasn’t produced to earn the most money. It isn’t formulated for mindless popularity. It feels created for the sake of making very personal art that unites people as only a story performed in front of a live audience can. It was made because all of us hold these truths, or ought to.
At Arena Stage to April 8. 1101 6th St. SW. $40–$90. (202) 544-9066. arenastage.org.