By Tom LaVenture
Asian American Press
MINNEAPOLIS — “Hold These Truths,” a one-man show on the life Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American who refused internment during World War II will be performed at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio through Oct. 23, 2016.
Hold These Truths is the first of the Level Nine Series, an initiative to present diversity and contemporary topics that inspire dialogue in post-performance discussions. Hirabayashi is a courageous story to help appreciate the discourse about what it means to be American that is now so present in our lives, according to Joseph Haj, Guthrie artistic director.
“It’s an inspiring story of one man’s conviction and strength to stand up for his beliefs that speaks directly to our civil rights movement today, one that I find to be worthy of our awareness, respect and exploration,” Haj said.
Joel de la Fuente stars as Hirabayashi and portrays 36 other characters in the play.
Hirabayashi (1918-2012), was a 24-year-old Japanese American college student living in Seattle at the outbreak of World War II, who refused the exclusion order to be forcibly relocated to an internment camp by order of the U.S. government. He was convicted of a curfew violation and would live to see his conviction appeal, initially denied in 1943 by the U.S. Supreme Court, overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit with new evidence in 1987.
Hirabayashi died in 2012. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama the same year, for helping provide a greater understanding of America’s triumphs by confronting its failures.
“We’re really excited to be here in Minnesota and we are especially excited that we are part of this Level Nine Series initiative that is looking to tell compelling and interesting stories about the world today,” de la Fuente said. “It’s an honor and a pleasure to try to tell Gordon’s story for an audience here because it is exactly that; an important American story that is very relevant today and that Americans should know about and value.”
As a student of Asian American studies, de la Fuente said he was very knowledgeable about the Nisei internment but was a bit embarrassed that he did not know much about Hirabayashi until he was introduced to the original Jeanne Sakata production.
“I thought that if I hadn’t heard of him then a lot of others hadn’t either,” he said. “When you realize that his is not just an amazing Asian American story, you realize that Gordon is really an American hero.”
Hirabayashi’s contribution cannot be underestimated and the permutations of his struggle are endless, he said. At a time when world is afraid and people are quick to sacrifice civil and human rights to the rhetoric of jingoism and xenophobia, Hirabayashi is an example for people who are afraid to stand up against the violation of constitutional principles that we allegedly all hold so dear, he said.
“We do need people to defend this piece of paper and fight for the ideas of what is on it,” he said.
The promise of making things great in a fictional, maniacal promise to return to a simplistic world of good and evil is frightening in a constitutional democracy, he said. There is a narrow idea of what is good and a huge definition what is evil.
At the time Hirabayashi believed he was the only person refusing internment, and in the face of law enforcement, his community and family, he said. It was was just him and his principles.
“Eventually, when he was exonerated, everyone can say ‘yes, of course he was right,'” he siad. “At the time it was a very lonely position to take, which underscores how brave and courageous he really was and what a hero he was.”
On Friday, de la Fuente said he was speaking with fellow actor and friend, Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost”, “Hawai‘i 5-0”), who also produced “Hold These Truths” at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. The two were talking about how quick the Asian community responds to racist portrayals now as demonstrated with reporter Jesse Watters’ infamous election report in New York’s Chinatown for a FOX News comedy show.
“He had just Tweeted the FOX reporter to see if he wanted to really know how Asians and Asian Americans have contributed to this society,” de la Fuente said. “He said ‘I invite you to go see Hold These Truths and I will pay for your plane ticket, and Joel de la Fuente will buy your (theater) ticket so you can see a story about Asians in America and the contributions they make to this society.’”
Hold These Truths focuses on Hirabayashi from the time he was a boy in the Pacific Northwest until he was a retired sociology professor living in Canada — a point in time when documents were discovered that proved that the U.S. military had intentionally withheld information from the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court case that resulted in overturning the decision.
Hirabayashi was a Japanese American but he was also a Quaker, de la Fuente said, which was more than a compelling interest in the story, it was central to understanding how the man thought and to understand the source of his courage.
“The Quaker religion is one that I find so incredibly fascinating,” he said. “It’s sort of like an American version of Buddhism in a way.”
In Quakerism, God resides in the heart and known to that person alone, he said. The religion is short on dogma and big on action such as looking out for others, leading a principled life and doing things to help others.
Hirabayashi had a workman’s spirituality, he said. The practical nature of his faith was not separate from his beliefs as an activist, because he never really saw himself as an activist.
“At the end of the day, he didn’t start out to change the world or to protest; he was just simply following his personal beliefs and that led him on this crazy journey all the way to the Supreme Court,” he said. “Hold These Truths presented an opportunity to find the specifics of Hirabayashi’s being and inhabit it for a while — to find a greater understanding of hopefully what his story is and all of the things that it embodies.”
Jeanne Sakata’s play debuted in 2007 as “Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi” at East West Players theater in Los Angeles. Sakata was invited to take part in a workshop at Lark Theatre Development in New York where she and director Lisa Rothe revised the production into “Hold These Truths” that opened with the Epic Theatre Ensemble in 2012.
The production was nominated for a Joe A. Callaway Award for Direction. Joel de la Fuente was also nominated for a Drama Desk award for Outstanding Solo Performance.
The original play was a literal production that adhered to stage directions and the use of projections, de la Fuente said. Hold These Truths is conceptually revised to be more theatrical with the actor telling a story, he said.
“Within that it focuses on certain elements but Jeanne found the thread that goes through it so that is feels like more than a history lesson,” he said.
The Guthrie production has the same artistic team as the New York show with Rothe as director; BriAnna Daniels, assistant director; Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, set design; Cat Tate Starmer, lighting, Margaret Weedon, costumes and Mary Botosan, stage manager.
“Even though there is only one performer on stage, all of these contributions are very essential to the show,” de la Fuente said.
The lighting and the soundscape is as much a character in the play as an actor, he said. There is a lot of interaction of sound and light and the set seems simple but it is a big part of the experience, he said.
Each theater presents different dynamics that become challenges to presenting the elements of the show, he said. It takes the team to adjust the production slightly for each new space so that the heart of the show is essentially the same, he said.
There has since been numerous productions, he said, some based on the original and some on the revised version. The original production team continues to stage the play around the country whenever it can fit between other projects, he said.
Fans of the Netflix Original “Hemlock Grove,” will know de la Fuente as Dr. Johann Pryce. He is currently in Amazon Studio’s “The Man in the High Castle” as Chief Inspector Kido, a ruthless police official in a fictional account of the Japanese occupation of the U.S. West Coast and the Nazi’s controlling the rest of the country after the allies lose World War II.
“Gordon is the anti-Kido and Kido is the anti-Gordon,” de la Fuente said. “They are on opposite ends of the spectrum.”
It was de la Fuente’s acclaim in Hold These Truths that brought about an audition for the role of Kido, he said. He wasn’t the ‘type’ they were looking for at first but he rose to the occasion and won the role, he said. Now after a season of television, getting back on the stage and not letting all that filter into his stage performance is the challenge, he said.
“I liken it to running a marathon,” he said. “You can’t just lace up the shoes and run, even if you have run one before. You have to train and mentally prepare self.”
What helps is that de la Fuente said he feels the Hirabayashi story needs to be told as a play, where there is a story with drama, immediacy, tension and an emotional connection to experience something that will stick with them in a way that is much more vivid, memorable and affecting than a documentary, book or classroom lesson.
“The pitfall is that this is very hard to do,” he said. “You have to know how to tell a life story that is interesting, complex and engages the audience to take seriously and we do that with a tremendous amount of respect — humbly, but with great ambition.”
Theater is de la Fuente’s first love and he is an alumnus of Brown University and the Graduate Acting Program at N.Y.U. But theater in combination with television and film roles helps to round out a solid career and help he and wife, Melissa Bowen, raise his two daughters in New York.
Tickets are $9 and available at the Guthrie Box Office at 612-377-2224 and at www.guthrietheater.org.