Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Hold These Truths" at the Guthrie Theater

"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal." ("And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I'm 'a compel him to include women in the sequel, werk!") Before Lin-Manuel Miranda made it impossible for me to read this quote without singing, I remember learning it in history class. And I remember my teacher saying that what the authors of the Declaration of Independance really meant was, firstly, men and not women, and secondly, the implied qualifiers of white, land-owning, and age 21 or older. In the last 200+ years, we have worked to expand that definition to include women, people of color, young people, poor people, and LGBT people, so that truly in America "all people are created equal." But the road towards that expansion has not been easy and it hasn't been linear; it's more of a two steps forward one step back kind of thing. And one huge step back was the internment of Japanese people during World War II, when over 100,000 people, 62% of them American citizens, were forced to leave their homes and live in camps hundreds or thousands of miles away. It's unthinkable that the president ordered this and our government allowed it, yet at the same time, it's scarily similar to what's going on today in terms of fear of immigrants and "others." The one-man play Hold These Truths, now playing in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio, tells the specific story of one man who defied these orders in a way that makes the injustice feel real and personal, and reminds us that we must never let it happen again.

Playwright Jeanne Sakata has taken the story of Gordon Hirabayashi and told it in an engaging, entertaining, informative, moving 90 minutes. Gordon was a student at the University of Washington when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the "relocation" was ordered shortly thereafter. An idealistic young man who loved his country (he was born in Seattle to Japanese immigrants) and believed in the freedoms it offered, he could not accept relocation, believing it unconstitutional. His case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost. By that time, the internment was ending and he was reunited with his family, but the damage was done. He went on to have a successful career as a sociologist, the case was reopened in the '80s and his conviction was overturned, and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly after his death in 2012. 
Joel de la Fuente (photo by Lia Chang)

Gordon's story is a remarkable one, one that deserves to be heard, and in Hold These Truths it's told in a much more engaging way than my boring recitation of facts above. Actor Joel de la Fuente (whom SVU fans might recognize as the tech Ruben Morales) is Gordon, and everyone else he encounters along this journey. He's funny and charming as he tells us the story of Gordon's life, playing every character, having conversations with himself, and mastering a wide range of accents and physicalities. On a bare stage with just a few chairs and a suitcase, Joel takes us through the highs and lows of Gordon's life, and paints a picture of a highly principled man who had no choice but to stand up for his beliefs, even if it meant going against the country he loved so much.

This was my first time attending a play in the Level 9 Studio since the program of $9 tickets began this season. Included in that program are post-show discussions, in an effort to make theater more accessible and engaging for everyone in the community. It's a fantastic way to allow the audience to share their thoughts with each other and deepen the experience. Especially with a play like Hold These Truths, which holds so much truth about our history, our present, and why we must make different choices now than we did in the past. The anti-Japanese sentiment during WWII sounds so similar to the rhetoric of fear we hear every day on the news about Muslims and terrorism. Hold These Truths reminds us that it doesn't work to hold people responsible for crimes against America simply because of their heritage, and in fact it goes against our constitution and everything America stands for. Gordon Hirabayashi's story has much to teach us, and it's masterfully told, satisfying in a way that the recent Broadway musical Allegiance was not. Hold These Truths continues through October 23 in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio, with tickets just $9 (and also check out The Parchman Hour on the proscenium stage for another masterfully told history lesson).

This article also appears on Broadway World Minneapolis.