Hold These Truths

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday October 12, 2016

Some years ago, a young college student defied a race-specific curfew set by the reactionary government. His rebellious act landed him in jail, where he pursued a legal challenge against the government for placing constraints on innocent people like him. The case rose to the U.S. Supreme Court, initially a test case for the ACLU challenge to discriminatory government policy.

In "Hold These Truths," playwright Jeanne Sakata details the life and legal struggles of Gordon Hirabayashi and traces racial bias in the U.S. along one of its more fertile veins. In the time immediately following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hirabayashi watched his government descend into hysteria and racial prejudice over Japanese citizens.

Washington-born Hirabayashi, a U.S. citizen, believed that the "constitution protects us because we are Americans." Sitting in a jail cell, he realized the error in that blind devotion. He soon discovered the speed with which a devoted citizen could be stripped of his civil rights without due process of law.

In our current political climate, the possibility of innocent people being sequestered and interrogated for suspicion of terrorism is chilling. The parallels to what happened post-9/11, to the curfews and police aggression toward black people, and to anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric are startling, and we would be well advised to pay heed.

A conscientious objector and college student, Hirabayashi was moved to action by his freshman civics textbook. With growing alarm, he stood by as the government rounded up all Japanese people -- exclusive of other Asian nationalities -- and sent them to internment camps. Finally fed up with the discrimination against people merely for their nationality, he stood against the government's "barbarity and ruthlessness," which they excused by claiming military necessity.

A play about such a serious and present threat could be heavy or skew toward dry text, but Sakata's writing is lively, warm and engaging, and sweetly and surprisingly funny. In this one-man show, Hirabayashi's intelligence and doggedness are evident in every word, as he tells how his hard-working family and their community went from respected members of their society to being treated like rabid dogs who must be caged.

Contributing to this charming storytelling is the charismatic Ryun Yu, whose easy physicality flows through every character he portrays. From impressions of his mother to ignorant hayseeds threatening to shoot Hirabayashi for petting a dog, to Supreme Court justices deciding his fate, Yu expands seamlessly into each new person.

"Hold These Truths" details just what happens when we allow fear to govern our actions, when we ignore our connections to the people around us and start seeing the physical differences as fault lines. In retelling the story onstage, Sakata is giving us the chance to avoid tumbling into the pit of racial bias and cruelty. Illuminating Hirabayashi's humble tenacity helps fix the sense of right and wrong in a universe that's constantly challenging our beliefs. If we cling to our shared humanity, she is saying, we can find our way out of any morally complex circumstance.

For anyone paying attention to politics, this play is an emotional experience. We can't flinch from stories like these because they help light our path. Sakata shines a gentle light onto a painful and humiliating facet of our history, and from it we can see what will happen if we forget what happens when we disconnect from each other out of fear. "Hold These Truths" should be required viewing for every citizen of a democracy.

"Hold These Truths" runs through Nov. 1 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave, Portland, OR 97209. For tickets or information, call 503-445-3700 or go to https://www.pcs.org/truths

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.