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Review: ‘Truths’ a one-man tour de force
REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / email@example.com
The experiences of Japanese-Americans in World War II — the Ni‘ihau Incident here, mass internment on the U.S. mainland, distinguished service fighting the Germans in Europe — have been a popular subject in local theatre for years.
Several plays have covered the exploits of Japanese-American soldiers in racially segregated combat units. Kumu Kuhua’s productions of “12-1-A” and “A Jive Bomber’s Christmas” explored life inside internment camps and the conflicts between those who wanted to help the American war effort and the “No No Boys” who found the wording of the mandatory loyalty oath so onerous they refused to sign it.
‘Hold These Truths’
Presented by Hawaii Theatre for Youth
» Where: Where: Honolulu Theatre for Youth, Tenney Theatre
The mass internment of American citizens solely on the basis of their ancestry is an uncomfortable subject for many Americans even 70 years later because of the parallels with the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. In both countries the government chose to imprison members of a minority solely because of their ethnicity. In both countries the government allowed the internees to take with them only what they could fit in a suitcase and forced them to dispose of everything else they owned as best they could. In both countries there were many people who took advantage of the internees’ plight and bought their property for a fraction of its true value.
And, in both countries there was little concern about the fate of the internees once they reached the camps. The sentiments on the anti-Japanese signs seen in California in 1942 were the same as the anti-Semitic signs seen in Germany in the 1930′s.
The crucial difference between the United States and Nazi Germany was that the American legal system allowed Japanese-Americans to challenge the internment in court. “Hold These Truths,” written by Jeanne Sakata and brought to Hawaii by “Hawaii Five-0″ actor Daniel Dae Kim and Honolulu Theatre for Youth, is the story of Gordon Hirayabashi and how he took his plea for justice in wartime all the way to the Supreme Court. It is a remarkable story, and with Joel de le Fuente starring in this one-man show, “Hold These Truths” is must-see theater as well as the actor’s tour de force.
De la Fuente uses an actor’s basic tools — voice, posture, facial expressions — to create vivid and distinctive characters. We see Hirayabashi as a young child encountering racism and the J-word in Washington state; Hirayabashi as an idealistic and determined young man who puts his faith in the ideals promised to all American citizens by the Constitution; Hirayabashi as acclaimed professor, near retirement age, who looks back over his life and then shares the final chapter in the story. De la Fuente’s beautifully nuanced portrayal makes Hirabayashi a fascinating American hero that anyone would enjoy meeting.
De la Fuente also creates a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of other characters — Hirayabashi’s unconventional issei parents, various people he met while a student at the University of Washington, military officers doing their duty, attorneys, law enforcement personnel and several of the Supreme Court justices who heard his case (Hirabayashi vs. United States) and decided his fate in 1943.
It is a brilliant performance by de la Fuente. It is also an entertaining and enlightening journey through a dark chapter in American history and the society that made it possible. In one key scene we share Hirabayashi’s disappointment when he finds that even liberals can be racists — or, at the least, accommodate racist viewpoints when it suits them. In scene another we experience his sense of freedom when he discovers during a trip to New York City that the racial segregation he lives with on the West Coast doesn’t exist there.
A minimalist set — a few chairs, and a suitcase — suffices to represent locales as diverse as the Empire State Building and a prison cell. Effective use of lighting heightens the impact of de la Fuente’s performance.
At times playwright Sakata seems to be taking the story into fantasyland, but, yes, Hirayabashi really was allowed to make his own way unescorted from a federal court on the West Coast to a work camp in Arizona. Yes, he really did hitchhike the entire way and stop off in Las Vegas do some gambling en route. And, yes, when he finally reached the facility, the administrators couldn’t find his paperwork and suggested that he go home (Hirabayashi stayed until they found the paperwork, did his time and continued the process of filing his appeal).
Key sections of the script come from court records. One of the most telling is Justice Frank Murphy’s comment during the Supreme Court hearing on Hirabayashi’s case that the American government’s policy of imprisoning a group of its citizens solely because of their ethnicity is similar to the German government’s treatment of Jews. While “Hold These Truths” reminds Americans of those similarities — and of a dark episode in American history — it also illuminates the all-important differences.
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.