[feature image caption: Joel de la Fuente as Gordon Hirabayashi. Photos: Lia Chang.]
[article as originally published in The Clyde Fitch Report, December 10, 2017.]
Jeanne Sakata’s one-person play Hold These Truths, running in the basement performance space of the Sheen Center in NYC through Dec. 20, delightfully explores an American life — as well as several courtroom dramas, pivotal political events and personal principles. It’s a play about social intolerance, legal oppression and family history, too, all as illuminated by the story of the late Gordon Hirabayashi. He was one of just three people of Japanese descent, including many American citizens, to resist President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order to forcibly relocate at the start of World War II. Hirabayashi’s resistance to a curfew and to internment laws was rooted in his belief that the order was unconstitutional.
Director Lisa Rothe has actor Joel de la Fuente begin his potrayal of Hirabayashi’s story from the back of the house, compelling us to turn to him. His focus and ours never drags as we adjust our sights to the stage. We move with de la Fuente as he creates multiple characters, stacks chairs to evoke pillaged home goods and makes slight shifts to his wardrobe. He uses his dexterous body and voice to portray Hirabayashi at many ages, along with his immigrant parents (his father was a truck driver, his mother was a homemaker), a prison warden, classmates, and a host of others.
During the summer of 1940, Hirabayashi confronted bigotry during a job interview: he was laughed at for having the audacity of believe he could work in a white-collar environment. This bigotry was a shock to him; as a Nisei, or child of Japanese immigrants (called Issei), he’d always worn his citizenship like a birthright; he was also a Quaker. In Hirabayashi’s college dorm room on December 7, 1941, however, his perspective on America’s entrance into World War II transformed his life almost immediately. Rushing home to comply with a curfew imposed only on Japanese students, he had a heart-stopping realization:
Our faces are the faces of the enemy.