An interview with playwright Jeanne Sakata about her play Hold These Truths, performed at The Pasadena Playhouse until June 25th. It tells the story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a civil rights leader who took his fight against Japanese American internment in World War II all the way to the Supreme Court.
What inspired you to write this play about Gordon Hirabayashi?
Jeanne Sakata: Initially, the inspiration came from John de Graaf’s fascinating documentary film A PERSONAL MATTER: GORDON HIRABAYASHI VS. THE UNITED STATES, where I learned about Gordon for the very first time in the 1990s, and which you can now watch online. Then further inspiration came from Peter Irons’ book THE COURAGE OF THEIR CONVICTIONS which featured a couple of chapters on Gordon; Sansei poet David Mura’s poem GARDENS WE HAVE LEFT, which mentions the deep impact that meeting Gordon had on him; and of course, Gordon’s own writings – articles, interviews, and letters he wrote in WWII as a college student at the University of Washington.
"Hold These Truths" was first produced in 2007 by East West Players under the title "Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi." The current production at Pasadena Playhouse is directed by Jessica Kubzansky and stars Ryun Yu who directed and performed in the first run. Can you talk about this play's 10 year journey?
We’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve had several different productions that have happened across the country in that 10-year span. After Ryun and Jess premiered the play at East West Players in 2007 and took it to Silk Road Rising in Chicago, Lisa Rothe directed Joel de la Fuente in a production at the Epic Theatre Ensemble in New York, that subsequently went to Playmakers Repertory Honolulu Theatre for Youth, ACT Seattle, and the Guthrie. Jess and Ryun also took the play for a second time to ACT Seattle, then Portland Center Stage, and next year, they’ll be at the Arena Stage.
Leslie Ishii directed Greg Watanabe in a Perseverance Theatre production, and there have also been two other director-actor teams: Daniel Student and Makoto Hirano at Players and Players, and Ron Celona and Blake Kushi at Caochella Valley Rep. Marty Yu played Gordon in the first East West Players high school tour. And finally, Michael Hisamoto will be doing the role in December at Lyric Stage Company, directed by Benny Sato Ambush. So, yes, literally an embarrassment of riches in terms of the brilliant artists and dear friends that have brought HOLD THESE TRUTHS to life over the last 10 years.
Has the script changed?
When I first wrote the play, it was intended to be told only from the very personal perspective of Gordon himself. After our world premiere in 2007, I got a chance to workshop the play with the New York Theatre Workshop, and the main feedback there was that it would be a more powerful play if Gordon’s personal narrative were juxtaposed against the larger narrative about the social and political forces operating in 1940s America that led to this mass incarceration of American citizens.
So I added a bit more content to the play that addressed questions such as, What individuals and groups contributed to the enactment of this travesty? Who fought against it? Who could have stopped it and didn’t?
Has the way audience members receive the play changed over the years?
The main reaction I’ve gotten over the years is astonishment from audience members that they have never heard of Gordon. His story is simply not in our history books, and that’s a real shame.
Also, as our country’s politics have lurched to the right, with hate crimes against minority groups and anti-immigrant hysteria terrifyingly on the rise, more and more audience members seem to be viewing Gordon’s story as almost a direct response to threats and tragedies happening here and now.
What was the best moment in creating this work?
One of the best moments for sure, was when the Hirabayashi family – Gordon’s wife, children, nephews and grandchildren all came down to see the play in Seattle. They loved the play, which was deeply gratifying, and I even ended up babysitting Gordon’s great-grandchild in the lobby so that his granddaughter could watch the show!
What was the greatest challenge, if any?
The greatest challenge was writing the first rough draft, which incorporated tons of historical research—facts, data. But, above all, I wanted the play to tell a great story, vibrant and alive, and not just be a recitation of those facts. So I had to do a lot of cutting and reworking before I felt I had achieved that.
The title "Hold These Truths" refers to the passage of The Declaration of Independence, "we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." Can you talk about your thoughts on this as it applied in World War II for Japanese Americans, and how this might apply now?
I think it would have been very difficult for most of the WWII Japanese American community members to “hold the truths” of their constitutional rights during that period of wartime, so rife with fear and hysteria and racial hostility, and to defy the government orders as Gordon did.
Many went into the camps, hoping that by cooperating with the government’s orders, they would win the trust of the American government, and also the trust of their fellow Americans.
Culturally, many were not brought up to resist the group dynamic, as Japanese culture emphasizes the group over the individual, and putting the group’s needs first. That’s why Gordon’s defiance dismayed and shocked so many in his own community.
Today, if the government ordered Americans of Asian ancestry into concentration camps, I think the reaction would be very different – I think there would be much more active and impassioned resistance, because we have been able to absorb the lessons of our parents’ suffering.
Was there any specific approach or process you took to writing this play?
I didn’t have a specific process in mind when I started out – I just plunged in with great passion for the story, knowing that I had terrific mentors like Chay Yew, Len Berkman, and so many others to whom I owe so much.
Did you stick closely to real events and verbatim from interviews?
My script is based on personal interviews that I and historians, including Roger Daniels, had with Gordon, as well as letters and articles that Gordon wrote. I also drew heavily from Dr. Peter Irons’ book JUSTICE AT WAR, and my research on the WWII Seattle Japanese American community.
In the script, I often used direct quotes of Gordon’s and stuck to the events as they actually happened whenever possible, but real life doesn’t always fit into the structure of a good drama, so there is also some ficitonalization of events and conversations in the play, and some chronological changes and compression of events.
Did you ask Gordon Hirabayashi for feedback as you were developing the work?
I did ask Gordon for feedback while I was writing the play---but he was a busy man, always on the go, always traveling, and sometimes the best I could do was grab a few minute on the phone with him on the fly!
In this production, Gordon Hirabayashi is played by Ryun Yu, who's not ethnically Japanese (it seems, please correct me if I'm wrong!). Have people ever taken issue with this for your play or has this mainly been a non-issue?
Gordon has been played by a Korean American, a Chinese American, a Filipino American and three Japanese Americans – and Gordon’s wife told me she thought Gordon himself would have been very pleased by that! It hasn’t been much of an issue, as I don’t think this particular play demands an exact match of ethnicity. The larger requirement is that the actor cast can command a stage for 90 minutes solo, can bring Gordon alive in a dramatically wonderful way, and have the versatility and virtuosity to create some 30-plus other characters of different genders, ages, ethnicities and dialects!
What are your thoughts on where we are currently with Asian American representation in theater and entertainment?
That’s a huge topic, and I can’t cover it all here, but off the top of my head, I think of the phrase “two steps forward and one step back.”
There are reasons to be encouraged. There are more Asian American series regulars than ever before, more indie filmmakers and screenwriters who are doing stellar work. There are amazing Asian American playwrights who are in the spotlight now and who are getting regularly produced at our country’s leading regional theaters.
But that progress is still slowed by whitewashing and limited perceptions on how APAs can, and should, be cast.
What do you most hope audience members walk away with after seeing this play?
I hope first, that they will be inspired and uplifted to have shared in a great American story, so little known by most of the country, as I was. I hope they will feel the urgency of recognizing that we can never take our freedom and our constitutional rights for granted, that we have to be willing to fight for them, not just for ourselves, but for future generations. And I hope Gordon’s quiet heroism, his persistence and heart, will remind each of us that in our own individual ways, we can take small steps to build a world that may not be here yet, but that is still to come.
‘Hold These Truths’
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.
8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends June 25
Information: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
This interview was edited for clarity and length, and cross-published in Alhambra Source.