“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … ”
That opening line of the Declaration of Independence is quoted early, and again, in “Hold These Truths,” a rewarding solo play about the civil disobedience of Seattle native Gordon Hirabayashi.
So is a Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks out gets hit.”
Both are emblematic of the 45-year campaign by Hirabayashi, dramatized by playwright Jeanne Sakata, to secure his full civil liberties.
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As a University of Washington student in 1942, he defied the U.S. government, and his worried parents, by refusing to register and be interned in the desert with tens of thousands of fellow Japanese American citizens — who were viewed as a potential threat to national security after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor.
Hirabayashi, a Quaker pacifist, also rejected signing a loyalty oath and doing military service. For his acts of resistance, he served time in prison.
In Sakata’s absorbing 90-minute account, versatile actor Joel de la Fuente portrays the late Hirabayashi from his rural Washington State boyhood, to his federal court exoneration in 1987 along with two other resisters. He was ultimately awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It’s a fascinating saga, drawing on the man’s own eloquent writings and Sakata’s extensive interviews with him and other research for the touring show.
Yet along with the appalling bigotry it re-enacts, “Hold These Truths” is also surprisingly humorous and openhearted.
As evoked by an ingratiating de la Fuente, young Gordon’s self-deprecating wit and sunny personality helped lighten his arduous quest for Constitutional justice. And it endeared him to others — even the grizzly boss of an Arizona prison work camp, where he served time with conscientious objectors from the Hopi tribe.
De la Fuente expertly fills in the story with cameo roles — as Hirabayashi’s immigrant parents, sympathetic Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy, UW frat boys hurling racist taunts and more.
And Sakata etches the everyday indignities and exclusion West Coast Asian Americans endured, much like what African Americans faced in the segregated South. In one achingly ironic episode, Hirabayashi is recommended for a job in a YMCA world brotherhood program. When he turns up for an interview, his race makes him unacceptable to the project’s backers.
But luminous moments of youthful joy arise too, accentuated in Lisa Rothe’s fluid staging and Cat Tate Starmer’s sensitive lighting scheme. After one period of incarceration, for instance, Gordon takes to the road, and lays under the stars reading the verses of mystical poet Kahlil Gibran.
Such sweet sensitivity was matched in Hirabayashi with a fierce belief in the liberties our Constitution guarantees. As “Hold These Truths” reminds us, those freedoms are often preserved by individuals willing to stick out their necks for the rest of us.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org