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‘Truths’ portrays Japanese-American’s fight during WWII
BY MIKE GORDON / firstname.lastname@example.org
Even if you’ve never heard the story of Gordon Hirabayashi, you probably know what he stands for.
It’s in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, right at the beginning, where the nation’s founding fathers wrote that all Americans are created equal.
‘HOLD THESE TRUTHS’
Where: Tenney Theatre, St. Andrew’s Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s Tenney Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Feb. 28; 8 p.m. Feb. 22- 23 and March 2; 3 p.m. Feb. 24
The U.S. government tried to deem Hirabayashi less “equal” in 1942, just as it did for more than 112,000 other Japanese-Americans and immigrants at the start of World War II.
But Hirabayashi said no and, using the government’s own channels, challenged the United States to uphold citizens’ fundamental rights.
His act of defiance — and the controversy that followed him for 40 years — is the inspiration for a one-man play “Hold These Truths,” which begins a limited run at Honolulu Theater for Youth on Thursday.
“Hawaii Five-0″ star Daniel Dae Kim is producing the show, which stars New York actor Joel de la Fuente, a close friend of Kim’s.
Hirabayashi didn’t consider himself a rebel, but his stance would ultimately earn him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In a final twist to his dark-horse story, the medal was awarded posthumously, three months after Hirabayashi’s death in January 2012.
“He wasn’t the kind of guy who was looking for a fight,” de la Fuente said. “He just felt he had to take a stand.”
HIRABAYASHI WAS a senior at the University of Washington when war broke out.
He defied a curfew for those of Japanese descent and later refused to go to one of the government internment camps created for the mass relocation of Japanese from the West Coast.
At trial, Hirabayashi was found guilty of violating both government orders and sentenced to 90 days in prison. He appealed.
The defiant second-generation Japanese-American’s appeal, backed by the ACLU, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court ruled against him in the curfew case in 1943. The court declined to rule on Hirabayashi’s internment but upheld the practice in a 1944 case.
Case closed? Not quite. Hirabayashi lived with the verdict for decades, but ultimately he was vindicated.
A political science professor discovered that the United States had suppressed evidence in Hirabayashi’s case, and his convictions were overturned by a 1987 federal appeals court in San Francisco.
“This particular chapter in U.S. history, internment, is perhaps the most egregious, darkest example of civil rights violations that this country has,” de la Fuente said. “These people were citizens and terrible things happened to them.
“But this story tells us one person truly made a difference.”
DE LA FUENTE faces complex demands in performing “Hold These Truths.” The actor is the only person on stage and must bring to life 37 characters: young Hirabayashi, old Hirabayashi, his parents, friends, lawyers, Supreme Court justices. Written by Jeanne Sakata, the play is more than 13,000 words long.
De la Fuente staged the demanding role in October with the Epic Theater Ensemble in New York.
There are a lot of “mental and physical gymnastics” that go with the play, he said, but he never forgets who he’s portraying once the 90-minute performance begins.
“There are a lot of conversations I have with people, and because there is only one person to tell the story, all those people come through me,” he said.
“Basically, as I get ready to do the show each night, I have to get ready to be nimble. I think of it as being physically on the balls of my feet and being able to jump around a lot.”
KIM KNEW he wanted to bring the play to Hawaii after he saw his friend perform the role in New York.
The two men have known each other since they were students in the graduate acting program at New York University in the early 1990s.
Kim’s children call de la Fuente “Uncle Joel”; de la Fuente’s children call Kim “Uncle Dan.” They view each other as brothers.
While most people associate Kim with TV and his roles on “Hawaii Five-0″ and “Lost,” Kim shares de la Fuente’s love of live theater. And de la Fuente also works regularly on TV — he appeared on “Five-0″ last week and has a role in the new Netflix series “Hemlock Grove.”
Still, the power of live theater, of breathing the same air as the audience, is undeniable, Kim said.
“To me there is nothing like it, and especially for a story like this one,” Kim said.
“We are talking about a man, ultimately. We are not talking about a fictitious character. And it lends to the storytelling when you actually have a person speaking to you, in front of you, and I think this is one of the reasons this production is unique.”
It’s also incredibly difficult to be the only person on stage, Kim noted.
“It’s easier when you have the energy of four or five different actors on stage with you to bounce the ball off of,” he said. “But to have to create that completely on your own, I liken that to being a soloist in a symphony.
“You’re asked to take the audience somewhere completely on your own.”
The performances are being dedicated to the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who understood firsthand the discrimination brought by World War II, even as he fought as a member of the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Inouye, the second-longest-serving senator in U.S. history, was well known to Kim as he grew up in New York and Pennsylvania.
When he met the senator for the first time, three years ago, the actor was “star-struck.”
“He had been a role model to me more than any actor ever has been,” said Kim, who studied political science in college before he discovered acting.
“My parents always said to me, ‘If there is anyone to look up to in this country, it’s Sen. Inouye from Hawaii,’” he said. “We all knew about him.”
THE GOAL of “Hold These Truths” is to make Hirabayashi’s story just as memorable.
Hirabayashi was a passionate believer in the Constitution, and he struggled to reconcile what his country had done. He remained a loyal citizen while opposing the injustice of internment, a process that took away Japanese-Americans’ freedoms on the basis of their race.
His tale could easily follow the familiar dark drumbeat of the internment saga, but it doesn’t, and that makes it remarkable, de la Fuente said.
“I find it to be a very positive, inspiring story and a beautiful story,” he said.
“Gordon, because he is so positive and there are so many funny moments, I think he opens not just your head, but your heart.”
Hirabayashi’s saga turns history into something more.
“It becomes a living thing,” de la Fuente said. “It becomes a great story and you remember it forever.”