All of a sudden Gordon Hirabayashi wasn’t allowed to study with his classmates at the University of Washington library at night. He had to be back home by 8 or be arrested.
All of a sudden the YMCA, where he’d been a college leader, couldn’t hire him as a desk receptionist. Their wealthy supporters wouldn’t stand for anyone with Japanese blood sitting out there for the public to see. Hirabayashi got the news from the YMCA chief in Seattle – a man instrumental in an international Y brotherhood project.
All of a sudden Hirabayashi, an American like every other American, was to be shipped off to a detention camp with barbed wire and official gunmen in watchtowers. He refused to go. It was during World War II, and the Japanese – the ones who were Japanese state military and lived in Japan – had attacked and killed American forces in Pearl Harbor. Hirabayashi was no longer like every American. Because he had at least 1/13th Japanese blood – in his case more — the War Department was officially permitted to strip him of his rights, along with about 120,000 others living on the West Coast. FDR, the president, turned a blind eye. So, even, did the American Civil Liberties Union.
The story of one of the nation’s most shameful moments is frightening for anyone who puts faith in America as a principled nation of law. “Do we really believe in the existence of self-evident truth?” asks an older, world-wiser Hirabayashi in “Hold These Truths,” the memory monologue Jeanne Sakata wrote about him in 2007, five years before he died at age 93 and then was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
“Hold These Truths” is being done here by Plays & Players as part of the company’s season of one-person shows celebrating single voices that change the status quo. Hirabayashi – one of three Americans imprisoned for refusing to abide by the federal government’s racist policies during the war – is played by local theater and dance artist Makoto Hirano, who gives him a character with a professorial tone that feels spare. (Hirabayashi did become a sociology professor after the war.)
The play is no screed – it’s a calmly told tale of one man’s decision to, as he says, be the nail that sticks out, inviting the hammer. There’s a respectful Japanese sense of order and manners in both the script and Hirano’s delivery of it, and Plays & Players artistic director Daniel Student even installs two silent kuroko – the head-to-toe black-clad stagehands found in traditional Japanese kabuki theater. They pop up now and then to help with stage effects on Colin McIlvaine’s set of panels and a white-sheet backing, lit nicely by Andrew Cowles.
The play itself is not so reserved that it shouldn’t move us. But there’s little passion in Student’s production, save the natural ardor in Hirabayashi for his own convictions. In the performance I saw Wednesday, after the opening weekend, Hirano was halting – he paused too pensively between the stories that moved the monologue along chronologically, and his performance generally felt as if he were holding back for reasons not apparent. There were flashes of heat when Hirano detailed the barbs of bigots and described his character’s journey to imprisonment in a federal labor camp in Arizona.
I couldn’t help thinking, while watching this considered rendition, that we’re talking here about a nationally sanctioned hate crime. In the context of theater, it lends itself to the sort of telling that should roil blood. But the show, normally played at 90 minutes in other cities, was 20 minutes longer here, and we were on simmer.
“Hold These Truths” runs through March 1 at Plays & Players Theater, on Delancey Place between 17th and 18th Streets. 1-866-811-4111 or www.playsandplayers.org.