Hard 'Truths'

TheatreWorks production celebrates an all-American role model

To start its 49th season, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has chosen a one-man play of great power and current relevance.

Jeanne Sakata's "Hold These Truths" is based on the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi, an American man of Japanese ancestry who, when faced with the unjustified curfew law and then evacuation and internment of Japanese-Americans following the United States' entry into World War II, steadfastly resisted.

In the play we hear about his fairly happy, if hardscrabble, childhood on a Washington farm, where he encounters racism regularly but nevertheless believes wholeheartedly in the rights granted to him by virtue of being an American. We see his time as an enthusiastic college student in Seattle, where he makes friends from diverse backgrounds, joins the Quakers and rises in leadership positions across campus. Once Japan attacks Pearl Harbor in 1941, he witnesses casual racism give way to paranoia and hysteria and sees he and his family's freedoms swiftly stripped away. Japanese families are forced to sell their property, businesses and possessions at cutthroat rates and are then inhumanely herded into crowded, remote encampments. A firm believer in the U.S. constitution, Hirabayashi stands up for his rights as an American citizen through jail time and all the way to the Supreme Court, where he loses his case.

A conscientious objector and pacifist, the real Hirabayashi went on to a distinguished academic career and remained a human-rights activist in retirement. In 1987, his criminal conviction was finally overturned, thanks to evidence that the military had no justifiable reason to enact its anti-Japanese policies and kept that information from the Supreme Court justices. In 2012, he was posthumously granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Clearly, it's an important story about a shameful (and sometimes overlooked) period of U.S. history and Hirabayashi was a person of great principle worthy of honor and remembrance. In order to make his story a compelling piece of live theater, though, the writing, cast and crew has to bring it to life and prevent it from slipping into dry, didactic territory. TheatreWorks' production (the regional premiere of Sakata's play) resoundingly succeeds.

A lot of that success rests on the shoulders of the show's sole cast member, Joel de la Fuente, who portrays not only Hirabayashi but also numerous other characters whom he encounters over the course of the story, including Hirabayashi's Japanese immigrant parents, his school friends, and various lawyers, judges, sheriffs and military personnel. Running about 90 minutes with no intermission, the show must be taxing to perform and de la Fuente is top rate. He transforms from young, idealistic Hirabayashi to somewhat jaded but still idealistic older Hirabayashi and back again, and into all the minor characters smoothly (and he was unflappable even when faced with a persistently pesky flying insect on opening night). He infuses Hirabayashi with immense charm, and the combination of his likeability and Sakata's straight-forward but well-written script (based on her own interviews with Hirabayashi himself, plus extensive research) allows for a surprising amount of funny moments to break up what is obviously a serious story.

Directed by Lisa Rothe, the production's set-up is deceptively simple, with scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams' set consisting of three moveable chairs, a suitcase, a suspended light and a window. Kudos to lighting designer Cat Tate Starmer, who manages to evoke changes in scene and mood with effective lighting shifts.

The play is the third of several recent TheatreWorks shows focused on the Japanese and Japanese-American experience, including "Calligraphy," in which "Hold These Truths" playwright Sakata starred as one of the lead actors; the brilliant debut of the musical "Four Immigrants" (the excellent soundtrack to which, by the way, will be available at the end of the month); and now "Hold These Truths."

Though Sakata first debuted this show (then under the name "Dawn's Light") back in 2007, it's easy to see why it's taken on more poignant relevance in the Trump era, when the U.S. seems dangerously close to again restricting the rights of people based on their ethnic heritage in the name of national security. It seems far easier to imagine now, than in 2007, that it could happen here again. But "Hold These Truths" is also being performed in Palo Alto at an interesting and relevant time for the city, when the internment and sacrifice of local Japanese-Americans has been a topic of recent discussion. Last spring, a suggestion to rename a Palo Alto middle school after Fred Yamamoto, a Palo Altan who was sent to an internment camp and later died in combat during voluntary U.S. Army service with an all Japanese-American regiment, failed due to objections over the fact that he shares a surname with an unrelated Imperial Japanese Navy admiral. The debate sowed discord in the community, proving that the wounds still run deep.

Gordon Hirabayashi is wonderful example of someone who strove for his entire life to live up to the American ideals he believed in, despite being repeatedly violated by the very nation that was purportedly built upon those ideals. To paraphrase Hirabayashi toward the play's end, he tried to live as though what ought to be, is. He makes a fantastic hero for the #Resist movement and his story should be known to all. Catching a performance of "Hold These Truths" is a great place to start.

What: "Hold These Truths."

Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

When: Through Aug. 5; see online for detailed schedule.

Cost: $35-$75.

Info: Go to TheatreWorks

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