How many of us know about Gordon Hirabayashi…or for that matter, about the WWII internment camps for American citizens of Japanese ancestry? Hirabayashi said “no” to President Roosevelt’s order of internment, all the way to the Supreme Court. (One hundred and twenty thousand Japanese-Americans were incarcerated without due process.) The Lyric Stage is presenting Hirabayashi’s remarkable story in HOLD THESE TRUTHS, written by Jeanne Sakata, and playing through December 24th.
Sakata gives Hirabayashi an exquisite speech to open the play, in which he quotes the famous credo, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” He then questions our tacit acceptance of the phrase: If such incontrovertible truths exist, do they have the same meaning over time…are they set in stone? Certainly, in 2017, truth is elusive, elastic and worst of all, elective. Sakata’s play resonates like the Liberty Bell (if it still can ring), with our despicable culture of racial injustice, not to mention our impending constitutional crisis.
Director Benny Sato Ambush and company accomplish an impressive coup: All the dialogue is spoken by Michael Hisamoto—as Hirabayashi—and as every supporting character, as well. None of the secondary kurogos speak with their voices. In Noh Theater, these masked actors “speak” through specific, gestural movement. (Choreography by Jubilith Moore.) In traditional Noh, their gestures guide the principal character to understanding and action.
When Hirabayashi refuses to follow his family to the camp, it breaks his mother’s heart. A shrouded, masked Gary Ng (as mother) conveys every ounce of her pain, by bending slowly, slightly toward the earth with crossed, lowering arms. These secondary figures (the extraordinary Ng, Khloe Alice Lin and Samantha Richert) provide pathos, humor and anguish solely with body movement (and the expressive “language” of the Japanese fan.)
You quickly forget that Hisamoto is answering his own lines with theirs, because the kurogos are reacting as if they themselves were speaking. Curiously, they become a much more dramatic element than the main character. Hisamoto conveys Hirabayashi’s astonishing resilience over forty years of disappointment (reminding me of Voltaire’s CANDIDE) with his ever present optimism.
Hirabayashi’s small victories burst onto Hisamoto’s face with a joyous smile but the playwright doesn’t offer much chance for us to see his suffering. She paints a sweeping overview of his life as if he never agonized over the ordeals he must have endured. No, Sakata has him cheerfully trundling off to jail, even requesting a longer sentence at one point. There is so much I wanted to know about his heroic fight for justice but this is a different play, by design.