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Hold These Truths

A searing play recalls the U.S.'s forced detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Michael Hisamoto as as Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths, directed by Benny Sato Ambush, at Lyric Stage Company.
(© Mark S. Howard)

Racial prejudice against minority groups was a fact of life during World War II when the U.S. government ordered the forced detention of thousands of people of Japanese descent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jeanne Sakata's play, Hold These Truths, is based on her research into the facts of the case brought by one man, Gordon Hirabayashi, who tried to resist. A college student when the war began, he protested his removal as an American citizen deprived of his rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.

This solo show, featuring Michael Hisamoto as Hirabayashi, takes the audience through the drama as it unfolds chronologically, from a description of Hirabayashi's easy life at school and the first restrictions on his community, to President Roosevelt's infamous 1942 order to evict the people from their homes on the West Coast and move them to camps erected in the bleak interior of the country. The play continues with Hirabayashi serving time in jail while his case proceeds to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him, and the aftermath of the action.

When the war ended and the Japanese prisoners were released and sent home, Hirabayashi returned to school, earned a Ph.D., and spent 40 years as a professor before the government admitted the injustice, apologized, and issued restitutions paid to the survivors of the camps.

Thanks to director Benny Sato Ambush and the addition of elements of Kabuki theater practice, the play takes on elements of drama rather than simply a monologue. While Hisamoto takes center stage, he is aided silently by a trio of kurogo, or stage hands, who move the props, change the sparse scenery, and rearrange the few pieces of furniture behind him. However, unlike their roles in Japanese theater performance where they are dressed in black and blend into the decor, these kurogo mime the other characters in the play while Hisamoto speaks their dialogue, changing his vocal tones from brusque to sympathetic to woeful, depending on their attitudes toward his resistance.

With costumes designed by Tobi Rinaldi, the kurogo are dressed in beige pantaloons and cream-colored blouses, with veil-like masks hiding their faces. Their highly choreographed movements and gestures bring a sense of ritual to the performance, a reference to the Japanese customs which crossed the ocean when the immigrants first came to the American shore.

Hisamoto is a modest actor, calm and thoughtful but unyielding to the pressures brought against him, even from the pleadings of his heartbroken mother and the bribes offered by the military authorities who needed full cooperation from the population under their control. His demeanor is marked by a sunny smile and an optimism that might seem unwarranted, given the roadblocks he encountered. His matter-of-fact, somewhat unruffled manner makes the reality of the indignities forced on him and the other Japanese Americans all the more shameful.

Scenic designer Shelley Barish has set the play against a backdrop of sliding screens, as if the action were taking place in a traditional Japanese home. White fabric floats above the stage to serve as a screen for Jonathan Carr's projections, which alternate between the WWII battles and the bleak landscapes where the camps were located. The music and sound score, created by Arshan Gailus, add to the Japanese-style aura.

The Lyric Stage production of Hold These Truths opened the week before the Supreme Court upheld the current administration's ban preventing travel by immigrants from certain Middle Eastern countries from entering the United States, a reminder that fear of the other is not just a fact of our past. Hirabayashi believed the Declaration of Independence, which stated, "We hold these truths to be self-evident," and detailed promises embedded in the Constitution to guarantee his rights and privileges as an American citizen, despite the country of his family's origin. Sakata's play is a reminder of just how close we are to repeating our recent past.

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