Hirabayashi Lives On, Still Defending the US Constitution

A play set in World War II reminds us that our rights are only as strong as our resolve to defend them.

Joel de la Fuente as Gordon Hirabayashi. Photos: Lia Chang.

Jeanne Sakata’s one-person play Hold These Truths, running in the basement performance space of the Sheen Center in NYC through Dec. 20, delightfully explores an American life — as well as several courtroom dramas, pivotal political events and personal principles. It’s a play about social intolerance, legal oppression and family history, too, all as illuminated by the story of the late Gordon Hirabayashi. He was one of just three people of Japanese descent, including many American citizens, to resist President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order to forcibly relocate at the start of World War II. Hirabayashi’s resistance to a curfew and to internment laws was rooted in his belief that the order was unconstitutional.

Joel de la Fuente as Hirabayashi.

Director Lisa Rothe has actor Joel de la Fuente begin his potrayal of Hirabayashi’s story from the back of the house, compelling us to turn to him. His focus and ours never drags as we adjust our sights to the stage. We move with de la Fuente as he creates multiple characters, stacks chairs to evoke pillaged home goods and makes slight shifts to his wardrobe. He uses his dexterous body and voice to portray Hirabayashi at many ages, along with his immigrant parents (his father was a truck driver, his mother was a homemaker), a prison warden, classmates, and a host of others.

Story continues below.

During the summer of 1940, Hirabayashi confronted bigotry during a job interview: he was laughed at for having the audacity of believe he could work in a white-collar environment. This bigotry was a shock to him; as a Nisei, or child of Japanese immigrants (called Issei), he’d always worn his citizenship like a birthright; he was also a Quaker. In Hirabayashi’s college dorm room on December 7, 1941, however, his perspective on America’s entrance into World War II transformed his life almost immediately. Rushing home to comply with a curfew imposed only on Japanese students, he had a heart-stopping realization:

Our faces are the faces of the enemy.

It was true. For resisting those wartime curfews and for resisting Roosevelt’s mandate to go to an internment camp — Executive Order 9066, issued in February 1942 — Hirabayashi went to prison for two years. That order, moreover, codified the social slights and micro-aggressions he’d known all his life, from the neighborhoods he couldn’t go into to people who thought he looked alien, and it wasn’t something he could obey. He couldn’t present himself, along with his family, at a government-created internment camp. For him, it was a matter of principle, of standing up for the core tenets of the Constitution, of resisting those guns that were pointed at the internees, as the script movingly points out.

We are now reminded of the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

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 among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Sakata’s deep research and deft dramatic hand pares and modifies historical details to create a moving exploration of these truths that we must continue to hold as self-evident. For it was these truths that animated Hirabayashi’s firm stand against a government order; it was these truths that enable him to contribute to the history of civil rights. Hirabayashi’s legal case, simplified and dramatized, argues that Roosevelt’s Executive Order violated the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the seizure of property and rights without due process of law. It took four decades for the case to be resolved, but it was — in his favor. His journey, literally across mountains and deserts, through degree programs, marriage, children and a teaching career in several countries, is that of a timeless American hero.

Rothe’s overall evocative staging, spare set design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, planes of light by Cat Tate Starmer and inspiring sound design by Daniel Kluger all perfectly match the straightforward storytelling style of the piece. We focus with joyous and painful clarity on Hirabayashi’s thoughts and experiences as a teenager, young adult, and middle-aged father and husband recalling his story.

Our country’s Constitution is only as strong as our resolve to defend it. Hirabayashi’s life lessons are painfully pertinent for Americans in 2017, amid current calls for border walls, exhortations to ban Muslim travelers, and new fears of difference. It is also important to note that one-person plays such as these can be heavy-handed. It takes a sure dramatic hand to craft moving theater out of social history and nuanced acting. Hold These Truths offers each quality in the right amounts. A potent political story, parsimoniously told.