Ryun Yu plays Gordon Hirabayashi and more than 30 other characters in “Hold These Truths.” (Photo by Patrick Weishampel/Blankeye.tv)
By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
PASADENA — “Hold These Truths,” the story of Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2002), has returned to the Southern California stage, and it couldn’t be more timely.
The one-man show, starring Ryun Yu, written by Jeanne Sakata and directed by Jessica Kubzansky, officially opened at the Pasadena Playhouse last Sunday and runs through June 25. It originated in Los Angeles in 2007 and has been touring the country ever since. In addition to Yu, Hirabayashi has been played by Joel de la Fuente and Greg Watanabe.
As a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, Hirabayashi initially believed that his status as a citizen born and raised in the U.S. would protect him from discriminatory treatment. When the government imposed curfew and later exclusion orders on all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, he turned himself in and challenged the constitutionality of the government’s actions. The Supreme Court ruled against him in 1943, but his case was reopened decades later and he finally achieved justice in federal court in 1987.
Yu plays the civil rights icon as well as more than 30 other people he meets during his journey. Without sets or backdrops and with only a few chairs as props, Yu mesmerized the audience and received a standing ovation at the end of the 90-minute show.
“This is a very special day for me,” said Sakata, who is also an actress. “Ten years ago, Jessica and I were at East West Players in Little Tokyo here in L.A. and we opened this play about … a story I became obsessed with. I had a deep psychic need for this story.”
When war with Japan broke out, her family in Watsonville “immediately became ‘the enemy.’ They were hard-working American citizens, my father, my aunts and uncles. My [Issei] grandparents, of course, were forbidden by law to become citizens although they wanted to … But they were imprisoned in Arizona in the Poston concentration camp and they buried that pain for many years. I knew there was pain underneath the silence that they maintained … but I could never really get them to talk about it.”
One day Sakata saw a 1992 documentary by John de Graff, “A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi vs. the United States,” on PBS. “Anyone of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast could be expelled from their home, expelled from their community, and had to go to a desert barbed-wire camp. I was amazed that a young college student could have such courage to stand up against these orders at a time when there was no mass social movement behind him [or]any laws guaranteeing civil rights.”
Sakata was fascinated by “how his Quaker principles aligned with his belief in the Constitution, that his spiritual principles gave him the strength to take his stand,” as well as the “gradual awakening” he experienced. “Gordon … initially started out obeying orders and saw himself as an ordinary American who just had to comply and get through these racist times. He just gradually came to a point where he said, ‘I can’t go through with it.’
“In that way he was like any of us who maybe are afraid to take a stand because we know what that will mean in terms of consequences … Yet we, every one of us here, have that ability, if we listen to our hearts, to get to that place.”
Playwright Jeanne Sakata, actor Ryun Yu and director Jessica Kubzansky at the opening night reception. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)
Having interviewed Hirabayashi and read his letters and journals, Sakata said, “I was drawn in by his humor and his love of life and his zest for life and his adventurousness just as much as what he did … This is a great American story …
“As we’ve taken the play across the country, we’ve found that very few people do know about Gordon, and I’m hoping one day his story will be in our history books. Today we find that … his story is shockingly relevant to what is going on in our country now. It’s terribly alarming that so many minority groups are being targeted now for being different or for being of an ethnicity … because of something that someone else did. That is what happened to my family and to Japanese Americans during World War II and we hope that we will take these lessons … in shining some hope and some light into the world.”
Kubzansky, who worked with Sakata to shape a historical epic into something intelligible and palatable to general audiences, admitted that she had no idea who Hirabayashi was until she read the play. Now she feels that she has the experience of “meeting for the very first time in my life a true American hero. When you think of heroes, you think of people who jump from burning buildings and it’s sort of a louder, noisier kind of heroism that we actually listen to. But the thing about Gordon was he was always humble-hearted, he was always full of humor, he was full of this kind of boundless optimism. I call this play a love story between a man and his Constitution …
“Every single time I get to be in a room with Ryun Yu and Jeanne Sakata and really the spirit of Gordon Hirabayashi, I am re-inspired to be a better human being because of the way Gordon lived his life, how he stood for his principles against all odds. It’s so profound and important …
“What I’m actually quite sad about is that the story is now screamingly relevant today. When we’re talking about a Muslim ban, when we’re talking about all sorts of denigrations, desecrations of the Constitution, Gordon says it in the play … ‘Ancestry is not a crime.’ The fact that we have to say that out loud again today … is both tragic to me but also a gift … that we get to say it again and we get to hear the story … of indomitable spirit and the huge cautionary note it’s ringing.”
Asked for his thoughts on playing Hirabayashi for 10 years, Yu reflected, “The script has had some changes. I think the largest change has been me. There are some things that only loss and time can teach you. Also this play, and the director … have helped me become a better actor each time we’ve done it. Acting is so much about finding out what your hidden fears are. I find that as an actor I have, through my whole life, tried to hide behind various things: technique, humor, intensity. This play is at its best when the actor who does it is simple, vulnerable and present. It has taken me a long time, but I feel I’m finally improving!”
The play had a full run in Seattle and Portland as well as Los Angeles, and Yu noted that the reaction has been different each time. “Portland is a less diverse town than Los Angeles or Seattle. We had a lovely run there, but I feel there is more interest in the play when there is a larger diverse audience population to draw on.
“The political climate has changed the experience of performing it more than anything. [It’s] as if Jeanne Sakata wrote it yesterday and not ten years ago. Gordon once said in an interview in the ’80s that the reason they were taking the case back to court, almost 40 years later, was so that it would never happen to another group of people.”
Yu never met Hirabayashi, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s when the play was launched, but has studied videos. He didn’t find that trying to imitate Hirabayashi would be an interesting take, but does feel that the no-frills solo show has more impact than a conventional play: “There is an unboundedness to the imagination that comes with the few tools that we have. There is a fluidity to it that I might miss with more actors and sets.”
He added, “In many ways, having to measure myself up against the colossal spine of someone like Gordon, and who yet manages to be kind and keep his sense of humor, it’s taught me not just as an actor, but also as a human being.”
Yu said of the creative team, “We would not be here without Jeanne Sakata’s words. She spent 10 years writing this play and the love and insight she poured into every line shows. Jessica Kubzansky is a brilliant, caring, collaborative director, the kind who jumps into the rapids with you and with such gusto and zeal. Ben Zamora [scenic and lighting design]and John Zalewski [sound design]cannot be praised too highly.”
Yu directed and stars in “The Last Tour,” which won the award for best screenplay at last year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. His character, dishonorably discharged from the Army, can’t keep his family fed and accepts a seedy mercenary job, with dire consequences. He also stars in “Yellow Face,” a film adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s stage comedy, which can be seen on YouTube.
Grateful Crane Ensemble board member Nancy Takayama, actress Emily Kuroda and author Naomi Hirahara at the opening night reception. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)
Pasadena Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman said that every performance is followed by audience conversations. “They’re not the typical audience talkbacks where the actor comes out and everyone asks him how he memorized all of his lines. There are actually different groups in the community who come to continue the dialogue of the play.”