Hold These Truths is a one-man play written by Jeanne Sakata, featuring Ryun Yu in the role of Gordon Hirabayashi. Hirabayashi is not a fictional character, but a real man who lived through Japanese American oppression in the 1940s. The play is based on actual historical events and interviews conducted by Sakata with Hirabayashi himself. It focuses on Hirabayashi’s experience as a Japanese American from Washington State after the U.S. Government, prompted by the paranoia that followed Pearl Harbor, instituted racist policies that controlled the movement of Japanese Americans, and eventually forced them into internment camps.
The play is written somewhat like a memoir, following the life of Hirabayashi from early childhood into adulthood. However, it is far from a long recited monologue. The narrative style contains frequent interjections from other people in Hirabayashi’s life, and their voices are directly relayed to the audience through Yu. Blended into discussion of racism and justice are elements of comedy, creating, for the audience, a balance between moments of reflection and moments of relief.
Yu does an excellent job of holding the audience’s attention throughout the play; no small feat, as he is the sole actor on stage for the duration of the performance. He successfully embodies not only Hirabayashi, but also the various friends and family that appear. His performance is dynamic, his comedic timing impeccable, and through changes of voice and body language, he is always able to make it clear to the audience which character he is playing.
The decor is a plain, square stage with only a chair on it and a projection screen as a background. This allows the audience to be entirely focused on Yu, who through his miming, creates props such as desks, prison bars, and baseball, without ever needing the actual objects. The only effects used are audio ones, most notably a gunshot sound near the start of the play, which alerts the audience to the brutality that is about to unfold. The stripped down backdrop keeps with the play’s themes, as it seeks to lay bare historical events which have been, and are still, ignored and undiscussed.
The play’s main focus is the issue of the constitutional rights of American citizens. It raises the issue of how bigotry, intolerance and fear caused America to go against one of its stated core values: freedom. Beyond the overarching theme of social justice, the play explores the question of what action is the right action in the face of adversity. The play begins with Hirabayashi quoting an old Japanese proverb his father taught him: “The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit.” This mentality is later demonstrated in the play, when Hirabayashi’s family and fellow Japanese Americans decide to comply without protest to the government’s unfair treatment, in an effort to demonstrate their devotion to the nation. Hirabayashi becomes the nail that sticks out, by refusing to comply, and is therefore thrown in jail. However, the play culminates with Hirabayashi’s father telling him there is an exception to this rule: when the nail is bigger than the hammer.
In the play’s program, playwright Sakata notes how the play’s theme feel incredibly relevant. She hopes the audience will leave not just with a better understanding of their country’s own history, but of how such events could reoccur. “I hope that people who attend will realize that [citizens being imprisoned based on race] can happen here—it did happen here—and in fact, it could happen again.”
Hold These Truths is running at Arena Stage from Feb. 23 to April 8.