Gordon Hirabayashi was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama in May of 2012, just months after his death.
Mr. Hirabayashi is best known for his nonviolent resistance to the Japanese American internment during World War II, a cause he championed during and after the war. His story comes brilliantly to life in Jeanne Sakata’s play Hold These Truths, now running in the Ellen Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage.
The play is a 90-minute one-man show starring Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi. In this role Yu delivers us a fully fleshed character, at once reasonable but passionate, calm but fierce. At University of Washington, Hiabayashi became a Quaker, and this is a big part of his story.
As a 20-year-old student at UW, the young Gordon Hirabayashi was outraged when in 1942 American citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up like cattle and shipped inland to hastily assembled internment camps, where they remained until the end of World War II.
During his sophomore year, Hirabayashi defied the curfew for Japanese Americans, and then turned himself in to the FBI. He was also the first of three Japanese Americans to refuse to go to the internment camps (the two others were Minoru Yasui from Hood River, Oregon and Fred Korematsu of Oakland, California.). In the play, the basis for his protest is rooted in the Declaration of Independence’s introductory words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident….”
“Do we really believe this?” Hirabayashi asks in the play. “And when they are made known to us, how do we see them?” This is the key question in a riveting historical drama performed by a master. Here a young man bets everything that there is the walk to go with the talk. His quest to get his case heard by the Supreme Court is truly heroic.
Yu, playwright Sakata, and director Jessica Kubzansky have been involved with the play since its development. Hold These Truths was first performed at East West Players in Los Angeles in 2007 under the title Dawn’s Light.
There are other voices also, portrayed by Yu in the play–Hirabayashi’s parents speaking and yelling in Japanese, various judges, jailers, his friends at university. Hold These Truths runs through October 30. It is an excellent play for students ages 10-12 and older. Indeed, there were many students at the performance I attended.