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Hold These Truths

World War II crusader Gordon Hirabayashi comes to life in a production at Pasadena Playhouse.

Ryan Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths, directed by Jessica Kubzansky, at Pasadena Playhouse.
(© Patrick Weishampel)

Some patriots build their legacies through the use of bullhorns and riots. Others wear bow ties and operate quietly under the radar. Gordon Hirabayashi fell squarely into the latter category. In the midst of World War II, the Seattle-born Hirabayashi refused to comply with the government's imprisonment of all Japanese people on the West Coast, a case that ultimately reached the Supreme Court.

The more time we spend in Hirabayashi's company via Jeanne Sakata's solo play Hold These Truths, the more we find to admire about this low-key crusader. A decade after originating the role for the production's world premiere at East West Players, actor Ryan Yu slips back into a persona that fits him like a well-worn cardigan. Following its run at the Pasadena Playhouse, Jessica Kubzansky's production heads east for several stops including Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage.

Kubzansky's production is direct and unfussy, allowing us to focus on Hirabayashi's words, demeanor, and actions. Except for a few strategic chairs and a projection board that is never used, scenic designer Ben Zamora's stage is empty, giving Yu ample space to roam around. The actor delivers his first lines — an academic's rumination on the nature of truth — standing perfectly still. Once Hirabayashi's journey kicks into gear, the actor is constantly on the move, but his work over the course of the 90-minute production is never frenetic.

In addition to the central subject, Yu enacts several characters including parents, friends, lawyers, Supreme Court justices, and Hirabayashi's Quaker girlfriend, Esther Schmoe. Other than switching out a tie or a set of glasses, the actor doesn't use props or persona-switching gesticulations. His work is unflashy but no less charismatic.

Hirabayashi, who experienced intermittent spurts of racism during his upbringing, was a college student in Washington in 1941 when President Roosevelt ordered the evacuation and internment of all people of Japanese descent on the West Coast. While his family members turned themselves in, Hirabayashi refused. Having spent time in New York, he experienced an America where cultural diversity is either ignored or embraced instead of shunned. "I lived a life of evasion," he admits, more matter-of-fact that rueful.

Hirabayashi's father preached the Japanese proverb "the nail that sticks up will get hammered down," but the more Hirabayshi enters the civil rights arena, the more he realizes that there is a bigger issue at stake than personal comfort.

Court decisions notwithstanding, America doesn't seem to be fully prepared for this crusader's kind of resistance. After losing his case, a resigned but bemused Hirabayashi ends up hitchhiking to Tucson for his incarceration and treating himself to dinner and a movie until the officers can locate his missing paperwork. Once he's behind bars, Hirabayashi's adoring college girlfriend (later his wife), bakes him a treat. "Taste the pie," Esther says suggestively, but the pastry isn't hiding a file. She knows her man just likes his food.

Continuing his activism long after his incarceration, Hirabayashi earned a doctorate and became an author, college professor, and sociologist. Hold These Truths covers this portion of his life as well. As down to earth as Yu makes Hirabayashi, he delivers the man's convictions with equal strength and believability. Clichéd though it may feel to have oft-quoted portions of the Constitution as part of a play, Sakata has structured Hold These Truths such that even these lines feel appropriate.

Hirabayashi died in 2012, several decades after his convictions had been overturned and four months before President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Sakata's engaging and educational play nicely adds to his legacy.