“’Deru kugi wa utareru.’ Dad first said it to me. ‘The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit.’ It’s an old Japanese proverb. To stay out of danger or harm’s way, one must conform. One must obey. One must be … inconspicuous.”
So recalls the older Gordon Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths, a moving and informative one-man play at Arena Stage written by Jeanne Sakata. Hirabayashi, the eldest son of a Japanese-American family in Depression-era Seattle, tried as a young student to be just that—inconspicuous. In school, he kept his mouth shut and hoped the teacher wouldn’t call on him lest he answer unintelligently and bring shame on his family.
It was all the more surprising, then, that when he was in college at the University of Washington, come the forced evacuation of West Coast Japanese-Americans to internment camps following Pearl Harbor, Hirabayashi’s indignation swelled into civil disobedience. He was among several young men who refused to comply with selective curfews and evacuation to the camps. And his case went, through fits and starts, all the way to the Supreme Court.
His story makes for a stirring history and civics lesson, but the drama derives its fundamental potency from the strangeness of his odyssey and the idiosyncrasies of his earthily noble personality. He is a stoic who adores banana cream pie. He is a man of principle who somehow ends up arranging his own transport, hitchhiking 1,600 miles to Arizona, for an outdoor prison work program. He’s an idealist, drawn to the Quakers for their sense of universal fellowship, sleeping under the stars and reading Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” by candlelight.
His odd tale also reflects the unbalanced heart of America. While trampling the Constitution, military and prison officials are nonetheless peculiarly chummy with Hirabayashi. With a harried army captain, he brainstorms alternatives to jail time that might be convenient and face-saving for all parties involved. When prison paperwork goes awry, a federal marshal suggests that Hirabayashi grab some dinner and take in an air-conditioned movie until things get sorted out and he can become an inmate.
“You walk around this city and the power of the government and politics is just palpable,”
Ryun Yu on playing Gordon Hirabayashi in Washington, DC
America, as embodied by such divided souls, is a well-meaning but confused and obtuse beast, its conscience wrestling with brute instincts to find a better self. Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, makes explicit in her program notes the parallels between World War II racist hysteria and Trump’s travel and refugee bans, part of a bigoted, havoc-wreaking “America first” mindset. The playwright too, in addition to wanting to confront the psychic scars of her own family history, sees Hirabayashi’s story, she writes, as “a direct response to what’s happening now in such a frightening political landscape.”
Hold These Truths
closes April 8, 2018
Details and tickets
Hold These Truths fascinates too as a nonstop one hour and 45-minute endurance test for Ryun Yu, the actor who portrays Hirabayashi. Even fighting a cold Thursday night, he held his audience in thrall in a role that he’s been refining for more than a decade. His New York, New England, Southern, Western, and other accents sometimes blur, but his impersonations of his parents and his love interest, Esther, are affectionately amusing. He takes an easygoing approach to director Jessica Kubzansky’s minimalist staging. Using only a few chairs and tiny costume adjustments, he darts around the stage and mimes ball tossing, jail-cell closing, reading and writing, eating, and so on.
Ben Zamora’s spare set and lighting, including a fluctuating Rothko-ish illuminated rectangle in the background, are precisely coupled with John Zalewski’s mostly muted sound design to convey mood as much as place. The effect is of bittersweet recollections echoing through the mind of an aging, weary optimist.
“My America … is covered with squares of darkness and light,” he tells us. “My America, the one I know, searches for self-evident truth, and sees in shreds and fragments. My America, the one I love, is not just matter, but spirit.”
It is a troubled, agitated spirit that will always need its Hirabayashis to survive.
Hold These Truths by Jeanne Sakata . Directed by Jessica Kubzansky . Starring Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi . Set and lighting design by Ben Zamora . Costume design by Cierra Coan; original costume design by Soojin Lee . Sound design by John Zalewski . Stage management by Christi B. Spann. Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.