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Jeanne Sakata's bio play about the late Japanese-American activist is more relevant than ever
The first time Joel de la Fuente played real-life civil rights activist Gordon Hirabayashi in Jeanne Sakata's one-person play Hold These Truths, he hoped it wouldn't be his last. "Very rarely is there an opportunity where you find something that you're excited to do artistically and also personally and politically, and this checked all of those boxes for me," says the character actor, who's best known for his small screen work on series such as Law & Order: SVU and Amazon's Man in the High Castle. This month, after five years of starring in the play on and off, de la Fuente is reprising his turn as Hirabayashi for the ninth time in a production by Hang a Tale at the Sheen Center.
Spanning four decades, the bio show begins in 1942, when Hirabayashi challenged the government's wartime relocation of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans to internment camps due to espionage concerns. His court case went all the way to the Supreme Court and, though he served jail time, he never set foot in a camp.
Although de la Fuente's inaugural 2012 run in Hold These Truths was cut short by Hurricane Sandy, he made up for that loss by playing Hirabayashi all over the country, including theatres in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Honolulu. Prior to the play, the actor had never heard of Hirabayashi, which is part of what drew him to the project. "The bravery that was required to do what he did was pretty astonishing," he says. "He was taking a stand not just against the government, but against his own community." Hirabayashi was one of the few people of Japanese descent in the U.S. who resisted internment.
Meanwhile Sakata's father went to a camp and was "so traumatized by what happened that he never talked about it," the playwright says. She first learned about Hirabayashi through the documentary A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi vs. the United States. "It was so redemptive for me, because he was a born storyteller, and he talked and talked and talked about those years," she recalls. "He filled in that psychic gap for me."
An actress by trade, Sakata was so inspired by Hirabayashi that she decided to turn his activism into her first play. As part of her research in the early 2000s, she interviewed him multiple times, and even stayed at Hirabayashi's home. "He was always very encouraging and very helpful," she recalls. "I would ask him so many questions and he said, 'I don't really remember everything. I'm going to give you permission to make things up, just as long as you stay in the spirit of the story.'" While Sakata admits she took some liberties, many of the more seemingly outlandish details, such as Hirabayashi hitchhiking his way to jail, are true.
Hold These Truths premiered under the title Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi in 2007 at East West Players in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, by that point Hirabayashi had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's; he never saw the play. He died in 2012 at age 93 and, a few months later, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.
Happily, Hirabayashi's family members have attended multiple productions of the show, and de la Fuente has performed for them many times. "When we did the play in Seattle, on opening night the moderator said, 'Please raise your hand if you are mentioned in the play, or know or are related to somebody who was mentioned in the play,'" he says. "Thirty percent of the house raised their hands!"
Sakata never imagined her play would become so popular. It's mounted frequently regionally, in fact, there's another production of it running in Boston this month. She also couldn't predict that Hirabayashi's tale would resonate even more in 2017 than when she wrote it. "Throughout the past 10 years, we have seen Gordon's story become more and more immediately relevant to what is going on, so that now it seems almost like a direct response to what is happening under the Trump administration," she says, noting that many critics have compared the president's Muslim ban to Japanese internment camps.
For Sakata, Hirabayashi's story is a reminder of how important it is to stand up against injustice, even if the wider culture is pushing you to conform. "All of the people who have fought and sacrificed for civil rights and human rights all around the world, they know they will encounter horrific opposition," she says. "But that doesn't stop them."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Hold These Truths. Go here to browse our current offers.
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Top image: Joel de la Fuente in Hold These Truths. Photos by Lia Chang.