Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The series recently launched with a blazing production of Hold These Truths Jeanne Sakata's play about Gordon Hirabayashi. Mr. Hirabayashi was one of three Japanese-Americans who resisted Executive Order 9066, issued in 1942, that called for all those of Japanese ancestry living in California, Oregon, Washington or Alaskawhether or not they were legal United States citizensto be relocated to barbed wire-ringed detention camps. This was in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan and the subsequent break-out of war between the two nations.
Gordon, born a United States citizen in the state of Washington, was a 24-year-old University of Washington senior. His parents, who had emigrated from Japan, complied with the order, as did over 100,000 other Japanese-Americans. Gordon believed the order violated his constitutional rights as a citizen. His case reached the United States Supreme Court, but under pressure to support the war effort, all nine justices ruled in favor of the government. Gordon served jail time for violation of curfew and the exclusion orders, and again for refusing to fill out a loyalty card, arguing it was discriminatory to require such an oath only from those of Japanese descent and not the general populace, even from German or Italian Americans.
Gordon went on to earn a PhD in sociology and had a distinguished career teaching in Beirut, Cairo, and Alberta, Canada. Shortly after his retirement in 1983, an attorney contacted Gordon informing him of new evidence that the government had intentionally withheld information from the defense in his trial. The case was re-opened and in 1987 the convictions against Gordon and the other two resistors were overturned, with reparations ordered to the survivors of the internment and their heirs.
Though Jeanne Sakata is primarily an actor, Hold These Truthsthe first play she has writtenclearly demonstrates a skilled dramatist's touch. Her play is written for one actor to portray all the parts, performed over ninety minutes without intermission. As expected, the role of Gordon Hirabayashi has the greatest share of stage time, but the actor must also portray Gordon's mother and father, childhood and college friends, the girlfriend he later married, police and military officials of various ranks and temperaments, a gaggle of lawyers, and Supreme Court justices.
Joel de la Fuente was astonishing in his ability to be all of these individuals. With the slightest shift in his tone of voice, facial expression, and posture he glided effortlessly among this diverse roster. De la Fuentes, who is Filipino-American, handled the far-flung accents, from Japanese to patrician east coast to redneck southern, with aplomb. Having previously played the role at Epic Theater Ensemble in New York City and at PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina, he seemed to easily inhabit the world of Gordon Hirabayashi.
Lisa Rothe directed the production, as she did for its Off-Broadway run in New York. She oversaw the seamless transition among characters, places and times, never allowing the story to rest, as Gordon Hirabayashi never rested in his dogged pursuit of basic rights for himself and his people. The setting was barely present: three straight-backed wooden chairs and a well-worn suitcase served multiple purposes. A large framed window was hanging at an angle on the left side of the stage, though to no identified purpose. Sound and light effects were used effectively to establish both place and emotional intensity of each scene.
Any work of art should stand on its own, and Hold These Truths absolutely does. Still, the community dialog added greatly to the depth of experience. Panelists for the dialog I attended were Dr. Gordon Nakagawa, Consultant for Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts; actor Joel de la Fuente; and playwright Jeanne Sakata. Audience questions included challenges the actor faced, outreach to other ethnic communities that have experienced persecution, parallels to the recent wave of Islamophobia in our nation, and casting issues specific to Asian-American actors. The discussion helped solidify ways in which Gordon Hirabayashi's story bears repeating, not only to afford his memory the respect it is due, but as a touchstone to inspire today's social justice work.
Hold These Truths is a sharply written play, an important history lesson and, like all good history lessons, a reflection on the world today. This production certainly fully realized the breadth and depth of the story. It will no doubt show up in many other cities, and is well worth seeking out. The Guthrie is to be commended for its Ninth Floor Series, making theater more accessible and fostering connections between the arts and the issues facing our communities. With Hold These Truths, the series has fully hit the mark.
Hold These Truths played at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio from October 7-23, 2016, as part of the Guthrie's Level Nine Series. For information on the Guthrie's Ninth Floor Series call 612-377-2224 or go to guthrietheater.org. For information on upcoming productions of Hold These Truthsgo to www.jeannesakata.com.
Writer: Jeanne Sakata; Director: Lisa Rothe; Scenic Design: Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; Costume Design: Margaret E. Weedon; Lighting Design: Cat Tate Starmer; Sound Design: Daniel Kluger; Stage Manager: Mary K. Botosan; Assistant Director: BriAnna McCurry Daniels.
Cast: Joel de la Fuente