Although Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi might not be a name people recognize, many know his story and the historic Supreme Court case which bears his name— Hirabayashi v. United States.
The son of Japanese immigrants, Hirabayashi, then a student at the University of Washington, was convicted of violating two of President Roosevelt’s orders during World War II: a curfew and relocation of Japanese Americans. He appealed the case and lost. President Obama posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom to the civil rights pioneer in 2012.
Hirabayashi’s brave story is told in Hold These Truths, written by Jeanne Sakata, an Asian American playwright and actress, who penned the script over a 10-year period, finishing circa 2007. Arena Stage presents her acclaimed work under the direction of Jessica Kubzansky. It stars Ryun Yu, who takes on all 37 characters in the play.
Yu originated the role of Gordon Hirabayashi in 2007 in what was then called Dawn’s Light at East West Players, and has been performing the play across the country over the past decade, including stops at ACT, Portland Center Stage and Pasadena Playhouse. It was during a show in Portland on Election night, 2016, when text messages started coming in like crazy that Yu knew everything changed.
“Interest in our play went from being, ‘oh, that’s a nice, historical piece. Nothing like that could ever happen again,’ and soon we were in the middle of a Muslim ban and everything else,” Yu says. “Soon, we were asked to do more productions and interest really took off.”
The political landscape being what it is, Yu is excited that the play is debuting now in D.C.
“You walk around this city and the power of the government and politics is just palpable,” he says. “As an actor, you don’t get a chance every day to do something that might add a little bit of something to the good, positive discourse and putting forth the ideals that we need so badly during this time.”
In addition to the name change, the play has had some other evolutions over the years, as things were restructured and cut, but Yu feels the biggest way the play has transformed is the way he has changed as an actor.
“There’s something that only loss and time can teach you and I definitely felt that,” he says. “Each time we come back to it, it’s an incredibly new experience. Jeanne puts so much love into every word. There were things in there that the first time I did them, I was too young to understand, or I hadn’t been kicked around enough to understand. When I came back to it later, I understood.”
One of those things was the notion that everyone thinks they can make a tough choice like Hirabayashi had to, but when it comes down to it, most people back off and don’t stand up and be that guy. In this case, 120,000 others didn’t.
“I always think about how hard it would really be to do that,” Yu says. “Every time I play this part, you measure yourself up against him. He’s a true American hero and the amount of courage he had and his defense of justice is mind-numbing.”
Yu remembers getting called in for the first reading of the show and was surprised that there were no other actors there.
“That reading went really well.” At the time, Yu notes it was a huge goal for him to play such a meaty role on stage. “There were very few roles for Asian-American actors, much less a leading role like this one,” he says. “I was fantastically hungry for this when it came to me.”
Hold These Truths
February 23 – April 8, 2018
Details and tickets
Playing 37 characters, including Hirabayashi, who subtly ages more than 50 years during the course of the one-man show, was a challenge for Yu. As was being the lone actor on stage for 90 minutes. “A lot of time when you’re doing something like this, you can’t really tell what impact it will have on an audience, but there was just a sunshine underneath the character that affected everyone,” Yu says. “We did some workshops of it and then that first production in 2007. At the beginning, I was trying to find the physical and vocal placing for everybody, and honor where they are coming from,” he says. “It was terrifying at first but it turned out to be much more thrilling and engaging and warming the more personal and honest it became.
As for research, Yu delved into everything he could, including picking the brain of Sakata, who had done numerous interviews with Hirabayashi. He watched recordings, read transcripts, and honed in on what it was about this man that enabled him to make this choice.
“A lot of what we picked fell away because they weren’t dramatically truthful,” Yu says. “As time went on, the research became more and more personal and it was about stripping away layers.
“Every time I do this now, I get charged up. You feel the importance of letting his voice and his spirit be known today.”