In an early scene of “Hold These Truths,” Gordon Hirabayashi’s father offers advice in the form of a Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks up is the one that gets hit.” The next 90 minutes of this one-man play, now running in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, proves the truth of that adage.
Hirabayashi was a happy-go-lucky college student at the University of Washington in Seattle when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. Six months later, all people of Japanese ancestry who resided on the West Coast were ordered to internment camps in the name of national security. While more than 100,000 people submitted to the now infamous Executive Order 9066, Hirabayashi refused, kicking off a 45-year battle for his rights as a U.S. citizen.
Playwright Jeanne Sakata created “Hold These Truths” based on interviews with Hirabayashi, who died in 2012, and others, as well as period documents and letters. She carefully details not only his courageous stand but also the milieu in which he lived. As actor Joel de la Fuente conjures a variety of characters with virtuosic ease under Lisa Rothe’s spare and focused direction, the play builds a portrait of an America that just barely tolerated the presence of citizens of Japanese descent even before the outbreak of World War II.
Despite this underlying hostility, Hirabayashi floated happily through his college years, joining the campus Quaker community, falling in love, and majoring, according to his friends, in “extracurricular activities.” This all comes to a halt when the exclusion order is imposed. Family and friends frantically sort through belongings, sell businesses for pennies on the dollar, and prepare to walk away from everything that won’t fit into the allowance of two suitcases per person.
Sakata’s play is not a polemic but rather a multilayered portrait arising from anecdotes, memories and telling details. The most striking aspect of “Hold These Truths” is de la Fuente’s portrayal of Hirabayashi as a cheerful warrior. He seems to relish the opportunity to be the nail that sticks up and his story is peppered with humor and humanity. As his character faces a prison sentence and numerous betrayals and rejections, de la Fuente’s puckish grin and delicate sense of comic timing convey the outrage of this dark moment in American history with powerful irony.
Hirabayashi’s vindication when his verdict is overturned 45 years later hardly seems sufficient in the face of what his courageous ordeal reveals about the havoc fear can wreck upon the most basic human rights. This well-crafted and beautifully acted piece offers not just a glimpse of the past but an extraordinarily relevant message for today.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.