We Hold These Truths

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday December 5, 2017

Michael Hisamoto with Gary Ng, Samantha Richert
Michael Hisamoto with Gary Ng, Samantha Richert  (Source:Mark S. Howard)

"Othering is as American as apple pie," writes Benny Sato Ambush, director of the Lyric Stage Company's production of "We Hold These Truths," and the play itself -- and, more importantly, the true story on which it is based -- tends to support his thesis.

"We Hold These Truths," written by Jeanne Sakata, tells the story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a complex character from a largely ignored American mythos, that of the vital and intriguing intersectionalities that sometimes have given rise to unique citizens of a particular bent -- one that personifies the best of the American spirit. Sadly, it's too often the case that this American spirit is not recognized by Americans themselves. In the case of Hirabayashi, it's an intersectionality of Japanese heritage, Quaker beliefs, confident American self-sufficiency, and sheer accidents of historical timing. Others might go along to get along, and cling to old world wisdom that warns that anyone who stands out gets hammered down -- not Hirabayashi, a man for whom that scales of identity are equitably balanced between his Japanese heritage and his American identity.

Hirabayashi was one of three native-born Americans of Japanese heritage who refused to submit to the United States government's order, issued in a fit of post-Pearl Harbor racist hysteria, that all Japanese immigrants and people of Japanese ethnicity should give up their homes, shops, and the bulk of their possessions and relocate into internment camps. The order -- an executive order signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt -- was supposedly based on a fear that Japanese saboteurs could work against the war effort from within American communities. Hirabayashi challenged not only that grossly simplistic and racist assumption, but also a subsequent induction order, the latter refusal based on the government's requirement of a loyalty questionnaire that he refused, on principle, to complete.

And why should he have? It wasn't as though American draftees of German or Italian heritage were being asked about their loyalty to their native country. Twice convicted -- and having taken his first case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices unanimously found against him, though several were pained at doing so -- Hirabayashi prevailed. He married, enjoyed a career as an academic, worked abroad, and eventually, in the 1980s, after a fellow academic unearthed evidence that the government had withheld evidence from the Supreme Court during his case -- Hirabayashi saw his conviction overturned.

Michael Hisamoto plays Hirabayashi as a man with as much humor as integrity. When various bureaucratic shortcomings result in his needing to hitch hike across the country to report to an Arizona labor camp, Hirabayashi takes his time in getting there... but he does go. And when he arrives, he's told that the relevant paperwork is missing so he might as well just go on home. Others might have considered it their lucky day and hightailed it, but not Hirabayashi; with all the good natured conviction of Socrates, Hirabayashi insists that the law be honored, and his sentence with it.

Sakata, who interviewed Hirbayashi extensively as part of her exhaustive research into his story, brings his voice to life and shapes his life as a series of illuminating episodes that progress after their own logical fashion. Hirabayashi'a eventual exoneration feels both right and natural -- and that, too, seems like a result of Hirabayashi's calm, his humor, his grace, and his deep convictions.

How fitting, then, that the production itself should incorporate elements of kabuki theater. All the dialogue is spoken by Hisamoto, but three kurogos -- described in the press notes as stage hands -- play various parts, too. Though their faces are obscured, their body language is eloquent as they mime performances to fit the dialogue Hisamoto relates various characters as saying. (The kurogos are played by Khloe Alice Lin, Gary Thomas Ng, and Samantha Richert.)

The scenic design, Shelley Barish, is deceptively simple -- a walkway made of elegantly cut and assembled planks, backs by sliding wooden panels with paper rather than glass filling in the gaps. Above there hangs a thick, warped piece of parchment,large enough to stretch all the way across the performance space; this serves as a screen for various projections, but is also symbolizes the ripped and crumpled promises of our nation's Constitution, a document trampled periodically by the hatreds, fears, and prejudices of this nobly-conceived nation's not-always-noble citizens. Karen Perlow's striking lighting design creates somber, humorous, and even reverential effects, embellishing and competing the mood that Hisamoto, a gifted storyteller, builds up and shapes for us.

"We Hold These Truths" takes no prisoners. Its 100 minutes are replete with passion and outrage, but also solace and hope. In the end, this is a play that's intended not to berate, but to liberate. As we see him here, Hirabayashi is a man who holds nothing against anyone, which only highlights the absurdity of holding an entire people's ancestry against them and locking them up for it.

May that be a message of reason and equity that penetrates the shroud of blame, resentment, and punitive sentiment closing in around us in these waning days of 2017.

"We Hold These Truths" continues at the lyric Stage Company of Boston through Dec. 31. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.lyricstage.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.