BOSTON – “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.”
Those words, of course, were written by Thomas Jefferson and are part of the Declaration of Independence.
A Japanese-American named Gordon Hirabayashi took the words to heart, and he believed that as an American citizen, he could not stand for anything less.
He paid dearly for that insistence, and his story is told in the Lyric Stage Company’s production of Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths.”
Hirabayashi was a college-age Japanese-American citizen who defied the forced internment of people of his ancestry following the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor in 1941, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost. But that was just the beginning of the story.
A Japanese proverb translates to “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” describing the pressure in the country to conform, a country and people who resist deviance.
But Hirabayashi, himself the son of Japanese immigrants, could not and would not believe the U.S. Constitution was a “scrap of paper” didn’t apply to him and 75,000 other Japanese-Americans just like him, and he was the nail that continually stuck out, even as the U.S. Government did its best to hammer him down.
Hirabayashi was often a prophet without honor among his own people, who otherwise bent to the will of a government that terrorized them.
Actor Michael Hisamoto tells the tale of Hirabayashi, with the support of three kurogos, Khloe Alice Lin, Gary Thomas Ng, and Samantha Richert, who in the Kabuki or Bunraku theatrical traditions are faceless, black-clad movers of scenery props and puppets.
But here they are silent players, portraying all the other characters in the cast, with all the dialogue delivered by Hisamoto.
Playwright Sakata admits that the character of Hirabayashi portrayed here mixes fact with fiction.
Growing up in Washington State, Hirabayashi feels the sting of discrimination rampant against Asian-Americans at the time on the Pacific Coast.
He is marked by his journey to New York City as part of a YMCA program when he finds no such bias, and begins to believe in his own rights as an American citizenship to be free from discrimination.
After Pearl Harbor, he is disgusted and humiliated at what is happening to his people, but even in his despair his Quaker ideals and deeply instilled sense of optimism make it almost incomprehensible to him that these things could be happening to American citizens.
Thus his conviction that someday, somehow – even after two prison sentences that preceded a distinguished career as a sociologist – he would prevail in court, even if it would take more than four decades.
Director Benny Sato Ambush’s efforts have graced many local stages, frequently winning awards, and the issues raised in this piece resonated with him. He is an African-American of Japanese descent, as he explains in the program
His maternal grandfather, Takayuki Yaokawa Sato, was Japanese. Though his grandfather died before the U.S. entry into the war, his African-American wife and her Massachusetts neighbors were interviewed by the FBI in the ‘40s
Hisamoto dances with great agility amongst the many others involved in the Hirabayashi story, including family, friends, and government officials, over a 50-year timeline.
There are Asian-centric scenic touches by set designer Shelley Barish that help set the tone, including sliding screens, wooden ramps and a horizontal strip of Momi paper used for projections.
The story is never less than engrossing, the redemption in court in 1987 at the end simply the cherry on top of the sundae.
Ultimately, Hirabayashi is able to reconcile his love for Lincoln, the U.S. Constitution and his people, all without ever giving in or giving up.
The Lyric Stage Company production of Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths.” Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Dec. 31. lyricstage.com.