“Deru kugi wa utareru.”
“The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.”
It’s an age-old Japanese saying that speaks to the country’s conformist, the-group-is-always-more-important-than-the-individual credo that has buoyed Japanese society throughout its history.
But what if the group is threatened, discriminated against, or mistreated? Should you still not “stick up” then? The Issei (first generation Japanese Americans) brought this phrase with them to the United States, but not all of their children, the Nisei, took it to heart. Case in point: Gordon Hirabayashi, the subject of Hold These Truths, a one-man play by actress and playwright Jeanne Sakata that is presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble and running through November 25. (UPDATE: Due to Hurricane Sandy, the original end date of November 18 has been extended.)
In the second incarnation of her play, which was originally staged in 2007 as Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi, Sakata recreates the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Nisei who dared to be the nail that stuck out, defying Executive Order 9066 during World War II and taking his case to the Supreme Court.
The theme of the play is serious and delves into a dark period in US history, a period that is not generally discussed, which is why this play should be seen. Many Americans are unaware – or don’t know all of the details – of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942, by which West Coast residents of Japanese descent – including Gordon’s family – were sent to internment camps, many losing their homes, businesses, personal possessions, and dignity.
Yet Hold These Truths is lighthearted, witty, and well, laugh-out-loud funny. That’s because Sakata captures Gordon’s child-like spirit and wonderment through countless interviews with him, his family, and his friends during her research for the play.
And Joel de la Fuente does a tremendous job as Gordon – as well as the voices of all of the people he encounters through his journey from childhood, when he first encountered racial discrimination, to college, when he solidified his ideals of pacifism, to old age, when he finally won his battle against Executive Order 9066.
It may be a one-man show, but it’s layered with many characters, situations, emotions, and dialogue peppered with Supreme Court explanations and lawyer-speak. De la Fuente handles all of them with aplomb throughout the 90-minute play with no intermission, endearing himself to the audience with Gordon’s aww-shucks, country-bumpkin personality and the exuberance and appreciation with which he saw the world. He’s even his own stagehand, deftly rearranging set pieces as he recounts the pieces of the puzzle that Sakata puts in place.
Gordon wasn’t your typical activist; there was no fire and brimstone, no rallies or protests. His odyssey through the US court system began simply and quietly. As a student at the University of Washington during World War II, Gordon was jailed for violating the curfew and internment directive, turning himself into the FBI to protest that these were acts of racial discrimination. After losing his appeal to the Supreme Court, the Seattle native served prison time at a labor camp near Tucson, where a recreation site now bears his name.
Both Sakata and de la Fuente emphasize the no-nonsense firmness within Gordon, whose deeply patriotic spirit and uncompromising faith allowed him to take on the US government, not as a Japanese American, but as an American citizen, an American citizen whose Constitutional rights were violated by the very country he loved so much.
He waited more than 40 years, but new evidence surfaced that the US government did indeed wrongfully incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II, and Gordon’s conviction was finally overturned in 1987. All Americans – not simply Japanese Americans – should be proud that this nail that stuck up refused to be hammered down.
Gordon may have heard that phrase throughout his life, but his life was guided by these words instead:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Gordon Hirabayashi died on January 2, 2012, at age 93. In April of this year, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Hirabayashi the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
[callout title=Hold These Truths]
Written by Jeanne Sakata. Produced by Epic Theatre Ensemble. Directed by Lisa Rothe. Starring Joel de la Fuente.
The Theater at the 14th Street Y – 344 East 14th Street (between First and Second Avenues)
Through Sunday, November 25. Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays at 7:00 p.m., with matinees on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Post-show discussions will follow each performance.