By Rebecca Romani
November 29, 2019
There comes a moment in the life of every democracy when the people need to challenge the government to uphold the civil rights of its most vulnerable and minorities.
As immigrant children are held in internment-like conditions and the loyalties of naturalized federal servants are questioned because their origins, that moment is once more upon us, making “Hold These Truths” now in its local premier at the Lyceum, more relevant than ever.
Jeanne Sakata’s one-man play is in turn endearing, funny, searing and thought-provoking. It turns on the real story of Gordon Hirabayashi (a brilliant interpretation by Ryun Yu), a Nisei (second generation Japanese American), who, shortly after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, suddenly found himself, his family, and tens of thousands of others like him, ordered to report for incarceration on orders signed by President Roosevelt.
Roosevelt’s order, EO9066, provided for the internment of all persons of Japanese ancestry, including people with just one Japanese great-grandparent, living in the exclusion zones along the West Coast. Japanese-Americans born in the US made up over 60% of the detainees. People were given a week to gather what could fit in two suitcases and then to sell or abandon the rest. The detainees would be sent to remote locations, often in deserted areas, like Poston, Manzanar, Tule Lake, and Heart Mountain. There they would live out the war in substandard housing and uncertainty of when their internment would be over.
Gordon Hirabayashi, just 24 years old and in college in Seattle, Washington, is one of the few who says no to detainment, no to internment, and no to having his civil rights as an American citizen stripped. His reluctant stand will ultimately bring his case before the Supreme Court and challenge both the government and his fellow citizens alike to think about what liberty and justice for all really means.
Ryun Yu moves smoothly between the younger and older Hirabayashi as well as a diverse cast of over 30 characters such as his immigrant parents, college friends, lawyers and others. It’s an extraordinary performance than never flags. Yu, who originated the part, brings an earnest compelling energy to Hirabayashi and fleshes out the rest of the characters with a deeply poetic clarity.
Yu is most poignant as Hirabayashi, when describing stunning moments in his life such as when he goes to New York City with college friends and finds he can go anywhere, and not be refused simply for his ancestry. But as the dark clouds of racial hysteria gather, he assures his mother nothing will happen to the American-born- “Deru kugi wa utareru,” (the nail that sticks up gets pounded down), his family reminds him and his mother darkly adds, “what they do to the Issei (Japanese immigrants), they will do to you.”
We see through Hirabayashi’s eyes how his faith in the Constitution and his Quaker beliefs are sorely tested when he realizes that the staging center for their detainment is the very fairground he and his friends used to play. You can almost hear the wheels turning as Yu leads Hirabayashi through resistance, his subsequent arrest and various imprisonments.
And when Hirobayashi learns the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, we, like him are taken aback.
“I lost,” he says…shocked at how the war effort has neutered the promises of the Bill of Rights.
But not all is dark- some of it is oddly uplifting-the scene in the jail when Hirabayashi first realizes that his college friend, Esther, visits because she loves him, is delightfully charming, while a chummy federal marshal who has misplaced his sentencing paperwork suggesting Hirabayashi catch a movie while they sort things out is…necessarily disconcerting.
In a sobering coda, Yu, as the older Harabayashi, tells of how UCSD Political Science professor, Peter Irons (now Emeritus), discovered that the US Government knew full well there was no military reason for the exclusion order but withheld that information from the United States Supreme Court. With these new findings, Hirabayashi’s case was re-opened, and in 1987, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned his conviction more than 40 years after his arrest.
Yu’s deeply moving performance is enhanced by director Jessica Kubzansky’s sensitive and judicious directing and blocking that keeps the show moving along and Yu at perfect pitch. Kubzansky, like Yu, has been with the play from its early stages and her understanding of the issues it covers is evident in its staging. Ben Zamora provides the strikingly spare set and the fabulous Rothko-like backgrounds of saturated colored rectangles- a brilliant choice, since Rothko started creating these blocks of color canvases as an expression of his deep concern over the anxiety and racially-motivated policies of WWII America. All is accompanied by John Zalewski’s inspired sound design, as spare and elegant as the show itself.
They say past is prologue, and here, on the Mexico-US border, the past tends to reassert itself again and again. It is telling that “Hold These Truth” calls up the national stain that is Japanese/Japanese Internment in a town that so enthusiastically sent these residents into internment in Poston and other places, and now is part of the intense national debate on internment of immigrant children and who is and is not “American” enough, imposed by this administration.
As Gordon Hirabayashi reminds us, for these truths to be self-evident, we all need to be the nail that stands up to the hammer.
Hold These Truths” continues at the Lyceum through Dec. 8. Check out the San Diego Rep calendar for illuminated talk-backs and audience conversations about the play and the issues of Civil Rights and other issues. Please check with the San Diego Rep for tickets and showtimes: https://www.sdrep.org/#https://www.sdrep.org