By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Gordon Hirabayashi is gone, but Jeanne Sakata continues working to make sure that he not forgotten.
An award-winning stage and TV actress most recently seen in “The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back” at East West Players, she has embarked on a second career as a playwright by authoring “Hold These Truths,” a one-man show about the late civil rights leader.
Originally titled “Dawn’s Light,” the play premiered at EWP in 2007 with Ryun Yu starring, then opened in New York at the Epic Theatre Ensemble with Joel de la Fuente, who received a Drama Desk nomination for best solo performance.
“The L.A. version, we were able to take it to Chicago, Knoxville, Sacramento, Salinas,” Sakata said in a recent interview. “We did a fundraiser for the Japanese American Bar Association last year at the [Tateuchi] Democracy Forum, which the Japanese American National Museum helped to co-present. And we’re hoping to do a staged reading for the University of Washington, where Gordon Hirabayashi was a student when he resisted the government orders for mass incarceration. They’re having a special Gordon Hirabayashi Day on Feb. 22 [in conjunction with]Day of Remembrance.
“Then for the New York show we are going to be in Melvern, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia, doing a staged reading for a series there called ‘Community Matters’ at People’s Light & Theatre Company. That’s in March, and then in April we’ll be at Playmakers Repertory Company in North Carolina …
“There’s also been a high school tour. [EWP Arts Education Director] Marilyn Tokuda asked me to adapt the play to a 45-minute version that we fit into classroom sessions. So we did that and East West Players has sponsored a high school tour twice with the Theater for Youth version …
“At the museum, there was a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian called ‘I Want the Wide American Earth’ … The Theater for Youth project for last year was a compilation of different monologues from different plays from different Asian American playwrights, so ‘Hold These Truths’ was included … I guess that’s going to be touring to high schools too.
“Every time someone wants to do it, I feel lucky to spread Gordon’s story a little further.”
Sakata had high praise for the actors who have played Hirabayashi, including Marty Yu and Blake Kushi in the school tours. “It’s a difficult play to perform. You need an actor who can morph into more than 30 characters … Gordon encounters many people along his journey and the actor has to play all of them … like the sheriff in Tucson or judges, and a lot of times Asian American actors don’t get to tackle those characters because we are sort of relegated to just playing people of Asian ethnicity.”
Supreme Court Cases
Hirabayashi, who died on Jan. 2, 2012 at age 93, was one of the few Nisei to challenge the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. His refusal to comply with discriminatory curfew and evacuation orders led to a Supreme Court decision upholding the government’s claim of military necessity. His name was cleared when his case was reopened 40 years later. Last year, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Legal challenges by Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui were also heard by the wartime Supreme Court, which ruled against them as well. The Mitsuye Endo case established that the government couldn’t continue to detain a loyal citizen, but didn’t address the constitutionality of the internment itself.
“At one point I played with the idea of writing a play about all of them, but there were some very practical considerations,” Sakata said. “One was that I was a first-time playwright … There are so many balls to keep in the air, you have to provide the historical backdrop … as well as the individual story, you have to keep the character alive and real, you have to make structural things happen so the play flows, you have to get the research right. At a certain point I became overwhelmed with the idea of doing all of them.”
Hirabayashi’s story intrigued her because he was a Quaker “at a time when it was very unpopular to be a pacifist.” His parents were “kind of maverick Christians because they belonged to this group called Mukyokai, which was pacifistic and democratic.” Also, Sakata could relate to Hirabayashi’s background, “having grown up myself in a Japanese American farming family [in Watsonville].”
She added, “His parents were opposites in personality. His father, he called him the spiritual anchor of the family. His father was gentle in nature, loved farming. He was a good-natured, warm-hearted man, and honest to a fault. In the play he’s described as baka shoujiki, which means stupidly honest.
“His mother, she was a very devout Christian but she was fiery in temperament and nature. She was passionate, everyone knew she was brilliant, but at the time as an Issei woman, she really couldn’t advertise how brilliant she was … She was way ahead of her time. Gordon said she would have been a professor or a politician or a journalist if she had been born later.”
As for Hirabayashi himself, “Gordon had an amazing sense of humor, actually kind of subversive … The more I read about him and I saw this humor in his writing, the more fascinated I was. I think that’s why Gordon’s story had an extra appeal for me.
“When I interviewed people about him, everyone spoke so well of him and how deeply he touched so many people. It would have been easier, I think, to dramatize someone that was more fiery in temperament. That was the challenge … although he had such a strong spirit, he was non-flashy … low-key and humble.
“Marilyn Tokuda’s mother, Tama Tokuda, knew him, so I interviewed Tama and she told me that when Gordon stood up for his rights as an American … he shocked everybody. Nobody thought that Gordon would have been capable to take that kind of stand. So that appealed to me, the fact that it was so unlikely.”
Meeting Her Hero
During a visit to the Bay Area, Sakata interviewed Hirabayashi and also met his brothers Ed and Jim. She was initially nervous about meeting her hero, “but he was so lovely. He was a great storyteller, so generous with his time … I asked him if I could come visit him where he lived in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, so we went up there and we stayed with him for a few nights and I interviewed him more … I got really extensive material. He gave me some articles he had written.”
Hirabayashi, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the last years of his life, never saw the play, but served as a consultant while Sakata was writing it. “I would send him scenes every now and then, and he would write back and make little suggestions here and there, or he’d say, ‘Great. Keep going.’ He was very sweet and encouraging.”
The University of Washington provided a collection of letters that Hirabayashi wrote from prison and after his release. “That really gave me the voice of the younger Gordon. The older Gordon, because he was a sociology professor, tended to speak in an academic kind of way, but these letters gave me the voice of the young student Gordon. That was just invaluable.”
Having a cast of one makes the play easier to produce, but it was a creative choice, Sakata said. “I tried different formats … but I kept coming back to a one-person show. I think the thing that drew me to that form was because I really loved the idea that Gordon … would remember and bring to life all these people in his memory. I really loved the idea of Gordon going on this journey of enlightenment …
“He didn’t start out being a rebel or intending to resist. He just gradually came to that place … He was running to obey the curfew, he was running back to the YMCA when the thought occurred to him that his dorm mates at the YMCA who were international students, and therefore not American citizens, were back at the library studying, but because it was 8 o’clock he had to obey the curfew …
“He said, ‘I just stopped right there in the courtyard and I knew I couldn’t do it.’ And he turned around and went back to the library. I just love that this quiet little moment was such a seminal moment that started this journey of resistance.”
The solo show also symbolizes the “lonely stand” that Hirabayashi took, Sakata explained. “Many members of the Japanese American community did not support what he was doing … There was so much fear and terror in the community that if you resisted, you would make other people in the community look bad … that if Japanese Americans did not show how loyal they were by going along with the government’s orders … they would be punished somehow. So Gordon’s stand was not a popular stand.”
The original title, “Dawn’s Light,” symbolized Hirabayashi’s journey of enlightenment and echoed the national anthem. It was also inspired by the fact that he had to provide his own transportation, without an escort, to go to a federal prison camp in Arizona.
“He said he started out in the very early morning, so I had this image of him with a suitcase and a coat out on this lonely road, hitchhiking at dawn,” Sakata said.
But before the show opened in New York, “we had some people that were interested in the play who suggested I consider a title change … something perhaps from the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and I thought of ‘We Hold These Truths.’
“Zak Berkman, who was responsible for bringing the play to New York, said, ‘What about just ‘Hold These Truths’? When he said that, something went ‘boing.’ You felt that little stirring because I thought that’s what Gordon does in the play — he holds on to the truths of his Quaker faith and the promises he claims in the Constitution as an American.”
Taking the show to different parts of the country has been rewarding, Sakata said, and audiences have ranged from people who knew Hirabayashi and his family to people who knew little about the internment. “We did six shows in Honolulu … [‘Hawaii Five-0’ actor] Daniel Dae Kim co-presented us with Honolulu Theater for Youth … That was fantastic, because Japanese Americans in Hawaii are not a minority like on the mainland, so when we did the play there on opening night, there’s a scene where Gordon and his mother hear a racial epithet and there were people in the audience in Honolulu, Japanese Americans, that gasped when they heard ‘Jap’ …
“I realized it was so different there because they didn’t experience the same kind of marginalization, racism that Japanese Americans grew up with on the mainland. There was racism, but it was a different kind of experience.”
Among those who saw the play was Peter Lenkov, executive producer of “Hawaii Five-0,” who later co-wrote an episode of the show (which aired Dec. 13) dealing with the internment of Japanese Americans at Honouliuli and other camps in Hawaii.
“I feel this is a story that should be as well known as Rosa Parks’ story, especially in light of Gordon’s youth — he was only 24 when he did this,” Sakata said. “He was very brave, but we don’t hear about it …That’s not right.”
On her future as a playwright, Sakata said, “It’s nice to be able to write and act … They both feed each other and it’s nice to have the option to do both. It’s hard to do both at the same time, but I’m getting a little better at it. And I hope to be writing more plays. I’ve started a few more and we’ll see if they go anywhere.”
Feb. 19 — Day of Remembrance staged reading (with Ryun Yu) for National JACL and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Feb. 22-23 — Day of Remembrance staged reading (with Greg Watanabe) for Interim Community Development Agency and University of Washington in Seattle.
March 17 — “Community Matters” staged reading (with Joel de la Fuente) by People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern, Pa.
April 23-27 — Regional premiere (with Joel De La Fuente) by PlayMakers Repertory Company at Kenan Theatre, Chapel Hill, N.C.
July 31-Aug. 3 — Pacific Northwest premiere (with Joel de la Fuente) by A Contemporary Theatre at Allen Theatre in Seattle.