October 24, 2012

Bringing New Life to Japanese American Hero Gordon Hirabayashi's Story




Three men, Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui, defied President Franklin Roosevelt's order to 110,000 West Coast Japanese to submit to evacuation and imprisonment during World War II. Among their stories, Gordon Hirabayashi's has always struck me as the most dramatic.

Convinced that Executive Order 9066 was unconstitutional, he possessed the moral courage to defy it. He ignored a curfew placed on targeted Japanese, refused to post bail that would have sent him to a prison camp, and challenged the government on the constitutionality of the Order. Upon conviction, lacking the funds to get himself from Seattle, where he had been at senior at the University of Washington, he hitchhiked to Tuscon, where he was to serve out his sentence, sleeping in ditches along the way.

Forty-three years later, Hirabayashi's conviction (upheld by the Supreme Court in 1943) was overturned by a San Francisco federal appeals court. Earlier this year, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

So I was excited to hear that actor and playwright Jeanne Sakata's play about Hirabayashi, Hold These Truths, was coming to New York's Epic Theater. Last night Sakata spoke at a meeting of JAJA (an informal group of Japanese Americans and Japanese living in New York) at the Manhattan loft of Tamio Spiegel and Julie Azuma.

It was fascinating to hear the story of how Sakata's initial curiosity about Hirabayashi turned into a driving passion, inspiring her to try her hand at play writing for the first time. She forged a relationship with Hirabayashi, and immersed herself in his correspondence and papers at the University of Washington library. She lucked out, meeting Hirabashi when he was in his early 80s, his memory sharp and his naturally sunny personality on full display. Hirabayashi died in January after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for a number of years, at 93.

Hirabayashi's personality was so positive in fact, that pinpointing those moment of self-doubt and anguish that Sakata  knew she needed to give her one-man play dramatic tension proved to be one of the challenges of the project. Even though Hirabayashi gave her licence to "just make up" what she lacked, she preferred not to; luckily she came across enough early primary source material to illuminate those desperate moments. One  such discovery came when she learned that when Hirabayashi's parents were brought from their prison camp to Seattle to testify against him, the government refused to put them up in decent lodgings, instead making them stay in his prison cell with him. Hirabayashi swore he would never forgive the U.S. government for doing that to his parents. He was also, Sakata told the audience, deeply anguished over the pain he caused his mother by his actions, which she feared would separate him from the family forever. 

Asked how she felt about a non-Japanese, playing the role of Hirabayashi (Filipino American Joel de la Fuente stars), Sakata noted that the theaters at which Hold These Truths has been staged all conduct open auditions, and that all the leading Japanese American male actors who might have fit the part were busy working, which for any actor is  "a good thing."

From all reports this latest incarnation of the play is moving, beautifully acted and powerful theater; I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Hold These Truths
By Jeanne Sakata
Starring Joel de la Fuente
344 E. 14th St.
New York, NY 1009
Through November 18