by Mike Hoban
‘Hold These Truths’ – Written by Jeanne Sakata; Directed by Benny Sato Ambush; Scenic Design by Shelley Barish; Sound Design and Original Music by Arshan Gailus; Choreography by Jubilith Moore; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Costume Design by Tobi Rinaldi. Presented by Lyric Stage at 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, through December 31
Theater often reflects the times we live in. As a result, 2017 has been a year where productions have often left audiences with the horrible sense of dread that what we thought could never happen again, may indeed be happening again. Local theatre companies have produced a number of Nazi-themed plays like Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day, Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, and Brecht on Brecht, while a national tour of the revival of Cabaret rolled into Boston just days after the inauguration. There were also a handful plays (To Kill A Mockingbird, Thurgood) that served as reminders that maybe those bad old days of institutional racism may not yet be over.
I was anticipating having that same sinking feeling when I went to see Hold These Truths, Jeanne Sakata’s superb solo drama about the “relocation” of Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II, now playing at the Lyric. But such was not the case. Despite the foreboding nature of the source material, Truths is surprisingly uplifting, and gives hope to the idea that with courage and perseverance, the principles that our country was founded upon can once again prevail.
In essence, that is how the play opens, where an older version of Japanese-American Gordon Hirabayashi speaks to the audience from his Quaker Meeting House, quoting Quaker founder George Fox:
“I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but (also) an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”
Hirabayashi was a college student at the University of Washington when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Following the attack, anti-Japanese rhetoric and violence proliferated, with signs like “Japs Not Welcome Here!” appearing in storefronts. Japanese immigrants (Issei) as well second-generation Japanese-Americans (Nisei) became subject to a growing list of restrictions on their freedoms. One of those was an 8PM curfew for people of Japanese descent, which Hirabayashi chose to ignore.
Still, he never dreamed that the public hysteria would lead to the internment of approximately 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry via Executive Order 9066 – signed by President Roosevelt himself. In addition to being sent to camps, the property and wealth of American citizens was liquidated, an egregious violation of their constitutional rights. So when it came time to register for his “relocation”, Hirabayashi refused and instead turned himself into the FBI, becoming one of three Japanese-Americans to test the constitutionality of the internment camps.
Hold These Truths gives us a glimpse into Hirabayashi’s early life with his family, where he was raised by Japanese immigrants who converted to Christianity. Early in his life, his father imparted to him that “the nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit”, a loose translation of a Japanese proverb about going along to get along, which he (thankfully) chose not to heed as an adult. The play details his earlier college days, including the courtship and marriage to his college sweetheart, Esther Schmoe, a Caucasian woman; the rise of anti-Japanese sentiments after Pearl Harbor; his trial and subsequent sentencing (including a very funny segment where he hitchhikes his way from Washington to serve his prison sentence in Arizona); and the appeals, all the way to the Supreme Court (which he ultimately lost). Michael Hisamoto gives a wonderfully understated performance as Gordon Hirabayashi, who embodies his Quaker beliefs as he stages his rebellion without a trace of rancor.
Hisamoto performs the play solo, masterfully giving voice to a range of characters from his own mother to the prison official (who is befuddled when he shows up to serve his term), adroitly shifting into each character and back again. He is aided onstage by three kurogos (Khloe Alice Lin, Gary Thomas Ng, and Samantha Richert) which the program describes as “‘invisible’ on-stage attendants found in Japan’s Kabuki theatrical tradition”, but they are anything but invisible, instead miming the actions of the characters whom Hirabayashi is giving voice to. Mesh hides the faces of these gender neutral characters, whose graceful movements are beautifully choreographed by Jubilith Moore.
Director Benny Sato and his creative team have done a beautiful and touching job with this production, which focuses less on the horrifying and shameful aspects of this ugly chapter in American history, and more on the resiliency of the human spirit. The casting of Hisamoto was a wise one, as he gives an almost joyful performance that seems oddly in synch with the darkness of the material. If you’re looking for a way to find some holiday spirit but aren’t ready to take in one of the many fine productions of “A Christmas Carol” being offered throughout the region, this may be the answer. For more info, go to: https://www.lyricstage.com/