The story of one-man's resistance
Hirabayashi's stance against Japanese internment captured in 'Hold These Truths'
PITTSFIELD — "Deru kugi wa utareru," the Japanese proverb goes. It warns that the nail sticking out is the one that gets hit. In "Hold These Truths," Gordon Hirabayashi hears this saying early and often from his parents as he faces anti-Japanese sentiments from fellow Americans in the first half of the 20th century.
"Of course, I didn't always listen to Mom and Dad," Hirabayashi recalls in the solo show starring Joel de la Fuente that begins productions Wednesday and runs through June 8 on Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage.
Hirabayashi's quip is quite an understatement. When the U.S. government interned nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II, Hirabayashi refused to cooperate with authorities, arguing that the government's curfew and internment policies represented unconstitutional racial prejudice. The late Washington native was imprisoned while his family was forcibly relocated to one of the West Coast detention camps. In 1943, his case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to rule on his protest to internment. Hirabayashi served a 90-day sentence at a work camp, but it wasn't until 1987, more than four decades after internment ended, that he was vindicated. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction that year. Though many would contend that Hirabayashi's civil disobedience should rank him among the country's most famous protesters, his extraordinary resistance isn't so well-known.
"As an American citizen, I had never heard of this story," playwright Jeanne Sakata told The Eagle during a recent phone interview.
There were other reasons why Sakata was surprised that she didn't know about Hirabayashi before watching the 1992 documentary, "A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi v. the United States." For starters, she is Japanese American. She grew up in Watsonville, Calif., where there was a "large, thriving" Japanese American community during her youth, she said. She also took Asian American Studies classes in college. But most poignantly, her father and some of her aunts and uncles were among those interned.
"My aunts and uncles were just teenagers or children then, and my father was in high school. [He] was just really ripped out of his teenage life and went to live behind barbed wire, as did my aunts and uncles," Sakata said. "So, this was a very personal attempt to me to really immerse myself in a redemptive story of someone that resisted and legally challenged what happened to my family, and by extension, all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast."
Born in 1918, Hirabayashi practiced pacifistic resistance throughout his life, drawing from Quaker principles. He was clever, too.
"He had this amazing gift, which I tried to show in the play, of encountering dark forces in the world with a special kind of creativity," said Sakata. "When he encountered racism in his life, he found ways to deal with it that were so creative and so unexpected that it often put the person that was discriminating against him on the defensive and not quite knowing what to do with this young guy before him."
Several moments in the play, which was initially called "Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi," convey this ingenuity. For example, during Hirabayashi's college years at the University of Washington, a YMCA director encourages him to apply for a receptionist job at a different branch of the organization. He interviews with another director who is raising money for the World Brotherhood program at the time. The director says that he can't offend donors by hiring "someone like you."
"Excuse me for being so frank," Hirabayashi responds, "But by refusing to hire me ... aren't you ... aren't you ... well, violating the spirit of world brotherhood? In your campaign to raise money for world brotherhood?"
"What happened was this man at the YMCA, according to Gordon, became very red in the face and embarrassed because of course Gordon was confronting him in a way that he could not justify himself," Sakata said.
While her play mixes fact and fiction, as it describes Hirabayashi's experiences primarily during college and the war, Sakata used interviews with Hirabayashi, who died in 2012 at 93, and Hirabayashi's letters to help inform her work. The play debuted in 2007 and has now been staged throughout the East and West coasts.
"He really had a beautiful light within him. I would call it a spiritual gift, this light. When I interviewed him in person and later on the phone, I would put down the receiver, and I felt full of light myself," Sakata said.
She wanted to see that spirit captured in the theater.
"I had never seen anyone like Gordon on the American stage before, and I was really possessed with the idea of adding to the portrayals that we'd already seen of Asian Americans with someone who had taken a very important historical civil rights stand and whose case had gone all the way to the Supreme Court," Sakata said. "I [wanted] all Americans to know about this and to see it on the American stage, and I also wanted a chance for an Asian American actor to have the chance to show his virtuosity by playing dozens of characters in one show."
De la Fuente ("The Man in the High Castle," "Madam Secretary") has participated in productions of "Hold These Truths" since 2012. During a telephone interview, de la Fuente said solo shows that require multiple character transformations are great opportunities for actors to hone their skills.
"There's nobody to act opposite," he said.
Director Lisa Rothe has worked with de la Fuente on the play since 2012, using numerous sound and light cues to indicate character shifts on the "minimalistic" set. Not that de la Fuente needs much help.
"He's such an extraordinary actor," Rothe said.
Director, actor and playwright all mentioned the work's relevance today in light of immigrants being detained in the U.S.
"It's just a great story about an American hero," de la Fuente said, "and unfortunately, it gets more and more timely with every passing year."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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