We’ve long known of our government’s disgraceful mistreatment of Japanese-Americans in the Western states after the bombing of Pearl Harbor—specifically, President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066 legitimizing incarceration, in “relocation” camps, of all citizens of Japanese ancestry. Ultimately more than 120,000, most of them born in the United States, were sent to these makeshift government camps throughout the West.
And for most audience members, playwright Jeanne Sakata’s award-winning, oft-produced 2013 solo drama, “Hold These Truths,” probably doesn’t offer any major new insights.
But in choosing to dramatize the plight of one real-life resister—nisei (second-generation) Gordon Hirabayashi of Seattle, who refused to obey the executive order, was promptly arrested and pursued his case to the Supreme Court—Sakata encapsulates the shame of our entire nation. Her play, for which she interviewed Hirabayashi extensively (he died in 2012), highlights a racist tradition that seems especially relevant right now, with reports of anti-Asian attacks nationwide.
It’s also a good choice for San Francisco Playhouse, the first local theater to stage a show indoors since the pandemic began: one actor, minimal stagecraft, a house big enough to accommodate a socially distanced audience.
And, as sensitively directed by Jeffrey Lo and performed by the sublimely talented Jomar Tagatac, it couldn’t be a better production.
In glasses and a mustache, Tagatac not only portrays the mild-mannered Hirabayashi but also others—his mother, his father, friends, etc. A graceful stage presence, Tagatac captures an assortment of accents, physicalities, ages and ethnicities with ease. Throughout, as he’s playing the main role of Hirabayashi, he manages to be low-key, impassioned and deeply emotionally connected. You’re likely to love this character from the beginning.
\Which is a good thing, because at close to two (intermissionless) hours, Sakata attempts to cover too much of Hirabayashi’s life: bits of his childhood in Seattle; his college years at Washington State University starting in 1937; his first meeting with a friendly Jewish coed whom he eventually marries; his commitment to Quaker beliefs; an eye-opening visit to New York City, where to his amazement he was accepted as Japanese-American without discrimination (“I’ve finally joined the human race!” he exults).
It’s not until he’s ordered, along with everyone else of Japanese ancestry in the West, to report for relocation, and quickly makes the decision to be a refusenik—convinced, as he is, that the order is unconstitutional—that the play becomes more dramatic.
In an especially touching scene, he tells his mother and father of his life-changing decision, one that he never loses sight of despite his ordeals. His portrayal of his frightened, loving parents is exquisite.
From that point on, we don’t learn much about his time in prison, although it’s quite amusing to discover that he obligingly hitchhiked to Arizona in order to serve part of his sentence in an outdoor facility. But we follow his fight right up to a brief appearance at the Supreme Court. What eventually happens is of course a matter of public record, but it’s nevertheless shocking to rediscover it through the play.
San Francisco Playhouse wisely stages the show with minimal effects, designed by Christopher Fitzer: two wooden chairs and a small platform, enclosed by a wooden fence-like structure around the stage’s periphery. Also impressive is a narrow, upstage screen that projects a potent series of artworks, abstract designs and archival photos that enhance the drama to just the right degree. (The designer is Teddy Hulsker.)
Still, despite the excellent production, a question remains, one that faces many playwrights: Why not simply a memoir with photos? What makes Hirabayashi’s story stage-worthy? For that matter, why not watch it virtually (an option that’s available to Playhouse audiences)? Tagatac’s performance almost answers both questions. Almost.
Hold These Truths
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: 450 Post St., S.F.
When: Wednesdays-Saturdays; closes July 3
Tickets: $15 to $100
Contact: (415) 677-9596, sfplayhouse.org
Note: The show also streams throughout the run.