Gordon Hirabayashi never intended to be a rebel.
But he became one in 1942 when, by presidential edict, the U.S. military evacuated about 110,000 Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes, sending them to internment camps in the name of preventing “espionage” and “sabotage.”
Hirabayashi, a 24-year-old Seattle native and University of Washington student, refused to go. His courageous defiance of internment (he also refused World War II military service) got him arrested and jailed. Decades later, after successfully fighting to have his convictions overturned, he was recognized as a civil-rights hero.
President Obama awarded him a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedomshortly after Hirabayashi’s death in 2012, at age 93. Hirabayashi also inspired Jeanne Sakata’s lauded 90-minute play, “Hold These Truths.” This week ACT Theatre presents the Seattle premiere, starring stage-screen actor Joel de la Fuente.
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Sakata first learned of Hirabayashi’s activism from the documentary film “A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi vs. the United States.”
“I was riveted by the story, and amazed that as a Japanese-American woman, I had never heard of Gordon before,” she says. “I was determined to find out all I could about him. … The more I learned, the more passionate I became about trying to bring his story to the American stage.”
Before Hirabayashi passed away in Edmonton, Canada, where he spent many years as a University of Alberta professor, Sakata had numerous in-depth interviews with him for her one-actor, multicharacter bio-drama, and he gave her some of his unpublished essays for the project. In 1998, here to act in a show at Intiman Theatre, she spoke with some of his old Seattle friends, and delved into a collection of Hirabayashi’s papers at the UW Library, which “brought his story vividly to life.”
Raised mostly in Auburn by immigrant parents who became Christian pacifists, Hirabayashi was reportedly a fun-loving, upbeat person, who endured his ordeal and wore his honors lightly. But he was an unwavering defender of constitutional liberties.
“I never look at my case as just my own, or just as a Japanese-American case,” he once said. “It is an American case, with principles that affect the fundamental human rights of all Americans.”
Sakata’s play opened in Los Angeles in 2007, under the title “Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi,” and a condensed version toured L.A. schools. Joel de la Fuente (a co-star on Netflix’s “Hemlock Grove”) first performed the revised version, “Hold These Truths,” in its 2012 New York premiere. Portraying Hirabayashi, his mother and some 30 other characters (real and fictional), he earned a Drama Desk nomination and toured with the piece to Honolulu and other cities.
Though his heritage is Filipino, de la Fuente says he shares some of Hirabayashi’s experiences growing up Asian-American with immigrant parents. He finds “a lot of resonance in the script with our current war on terror. When people are afraid, they tend to give away their personal liberties. Gordon single-handedly, simply and fearlessly said, I don’t believe this is right and I’m not going along with it, even if my family, my community and most of my country don’t agree.”
Bringing “Hold These Truths” to the city where Hirabayashi was born, made his stand, and where a new International District affordable housing complex bears his name, is “a dream come true,” says de la Fuente.
Sakata agrees, and stresses that Hirabayashi was a national hero. “Gordon’s lifelong battle to claim the full rights of citizenship,” she says, “can be a powerful inspiration to all Americans who care about the Constitutional principles we say our country is founded upon.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com