PITTSFIELD — Jeanne Sakata's deeply resonant play, "Hold These Truths," opens with a series of questions prompted by these words from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident."
"Do we, indeed, believe in the existence of 'self-evident truth?' Which, by the very rightness of its being, needs no human justification," actor Joel de la Fuente says from the audience as he makes his way onto the stage of Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage, where "Hold These Truths" is being given a smoothly executed, theatrically and intellectually engaging production.
"And if we say such truths exist, how will they appear to us? In fragments or in full? Over seconds or over centuries?
"And when they are made known to us, how fully will we see them? Will our vision of them be dimmed by the darkness of human corruption?"
Sakata and de la Fuente — as the play's central character, Gordon Hirabayashi — spend the next 90 or so minutes in search of answers, not only to those questions. In its way, "Hold These Truths" asks "Where is God? What is country?"
In a sense, "Hold These Truths" is about the quintessential pursuit of the American dream. The son of immigrant Japanese parents, Issei — first generation immigrants to the U.S., born in Japan — who were members of what Hirabayashi describes as a "rebel Japanese religious group, Mukyokai — Pacifistic. Democratic. No priest. No choir. No church. Just four families, 'in fire for God,' working the land on a commune" just outside Seattle.
In 1937, Hirabayashi enters the University of Washington, where he becomes involved in a variety of extracurricular activities; becomes a leader at the student Y and discovers the University Friends — Quakers. "Friends. I like that. That's what the Quakers call themselves," he says. "I'm incredibly drawn to their view that God doesn't reside in any one religion or church, but instead in each man's heart, to be known as each sees fit," he says.
Hirabayashi's pacifist belief system is sorely tested with the imminent outbreak of war as the Germans advance across Europe. His keen awareness of what it means to be part of a nation rather than viewed as the "other" is awakened during a trip to New York in the summer of his junior year to attend a national student Y convention. The object of derision and bigotry is in Seattle, but in New York, he is treated as a human being. There is no sense of exclusion; of being left out; of being kept out because of his race.
He is brought back to earth when he returns to Seattle and is openly denied a job because of his ancestry. Then, Pearl Harbor, the consequent pervasive fear of Japanese invasion and anything, anyone Japanese.
"None of us Nisei can escape the shame burning in our faces," Hirabayashi says. "Our faces are the faces of the enemy."
He ignores an 8 p.m. West Coast curfew posed against anyone of Japanese ancestry. He is tried, convicted, jailed for 90 days and, eventually, ruled against by the U.S. Supreme Court. When his family is caught up in the mass evacuation of people of Japanese descent to harsh and forbidding detention camps, Hirabayashi refuses to register and once again runs afoul of the law.
He subsequently refuses to be inducted into the military on the grounds that the draft orders were racially discriminatory and spends a year in federal prison. In 1987, 40 years later — after Hirabayashi has married, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees and become a respected professor of sociology — his case is reopened on the grounds of newly discovered evidence and the initial Supreme Court ruling against him is overturned.
De la Fuente spins all of this with ease, grace and authenticity. He assumes the voices and stances of Hirabayashi at various ages, as well as significant people in his life, with unassuming skill. It's an appealing, clean, lucid, crisply defined performance that is very much at one with an approach by director Lisa Rothe that is the essence of simplicity. Less definitely is more.
Based largely on an extensive series of interviews with Hirabayashi — who died in 2012 at age 93 — and first workshopped in 2004, "Hold These Truths" had its world premiere in Los Angeles in 2007 under the title "Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi"; before Trump; before the current obscenities by the federal government along our Southwestern border. The sad truth about "Hold These Truths" is that it speaks to a nasty, poisonous, insidious element that is deeply embedded in our country's DNA; an element that seeks to separate out — and not in a good way — the disparate ingredients of what once was known as "the melting pot."
"I am somewhat aware of what was, and is," de la Fuente's Hirabayashi says. "I have a glimpse of what ought to be. I seek to live as though the ought to be, is."
From his mouth to God's ear.