I’ll get right to the point: Hold These Truths, at New Century Theatre, is possibly the most important play of the summer, with certainly one of the season’s most exhilarating performances. It’s not only searingly suggestive of our current national crisis, but is a heartbreaking, infuriating, inspiring and energizing story in its own right.
Jeanne Sakata’s one-person play is about one of the most disgraceful (and hidden) episodes in the history of this flawed democracy – the internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans during the Second World War – and the defiance of one man who was caught up in it. His name is Gordon Hirabayashi, played by Greg Watanabe in Sheila Siragusa’s beautifully balanced and fluidly staged production.
“Deru kugi wa utareru.” Dad first said it to me. “The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit.” It’s an old Japanese proverb. To stay out of danger or harm’s way, one must conform. One must obey. One must be inconspicuous.
In Sakata’s always engaging script, Hirabayashi tells us his story, in the first person and present tense. He’s a young boy, born in Seattle in 1918 to first-generation Japanese parents. He goes to university, where he becomes a Quaker, drawn to the ideal of “the universal spirit of fellowship and sympathy,” and meets the girl “with those terrific eyes, and that great smile” whom he will eventually marry. He’s soft-spoken but outgoing and likeable, a good student and a natural leader and organizer.
Then, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor leads to the mass incarceration of all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, he faces his “nail” moment. Will he be inconspicuous and conform, or “stick out” and stand up for his rights as a U.S. citizen? Of course, he stands up for his own principles and, oh yes, the U.S. Constitution. (The play’s title, of course, comes from the declaration in our other foundational document, that we are all “created equal” and “endowed with certain unalienable rights.”)
He intentionally violates two emergency regulations: a curfew imposed on “all enemy aliens” and all “non-aliens of Japanese ancestry,” and the presidential Exclusion Order under which the military dispossessed entire Japanese-American communities and sent them to internment camps.
And here’s one of the many moments when Hold These Truths becomes so much more than a historical documentary – a deeply textured portrait of an ordinary man finding his way through the extraordinary situation he has thrust himself into. After being arrested, he takes stock: “I’ve got no money, no courtroom smarts, no strategy, no game plan. No idea for how on earth I’m going to fight this thing. I just know I have to say no.”
Surprisingly, from here on the piece gets not only more gripping, but also funnier. He accepts the consequences of his conscientious objection with humor and ingenuity, leading to quirky exchanges with a judge and a federal prosecutor and a downright bizarre encounter with a prison warden.
The simple set, designed by Daniel D. Rist and subtly lit by Amber Tanudjaja, consists of a bare stage occupied by a desk and three chairs, backed by a large projection screen and flanked by sections of high barbed-wire fence. Images curated by David Wiggall punctuate and underline the narrative, including archival photos of the forced evacuations and the internment camps. One of these, depicting orderly rows of wooden barracks, could have been taken at Auschwitz, were it not for the Stars and Stripes flapping overhead.
In his virtuoso performance, Watanabe embodies some 20 characters, from parents and fellow students to ACLU lawyers and Supreme Court justices. This is not one of those flashy multiple-personality turns, though. It’s always Hirabayashi telling us his story and, as it goes along, revealing the people in his life through subtle shifts of gesture, stance and voice. The result is an all-too-brief 90 minutes in the company of a great guy who is also a great storyteller and, not incidentally, a great American hero.
Through August 5th, Pioneer Valley Performing Arts, 15 Mulligan Drive, South Hadley. Tickets at newcenturytheatre.com http://newcenturytheatre.org/tickets.html or (413) 587-3933.
Photos by Elizabeth Solaka
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