“We Hold These Truths”
Written by Jeanne Sakata
Directed by Benny Sato Ambush
Through December 31
Lyric Stage, Boston
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
When the lights first illuminate the stage for the opening act of We Hold These Truths now playing at the Lyric Stage, Michael Hisamoto in the role of Gordon Hirabayashi is sitting in a chair facing the audience. There is a very long pause before he begins to speak. This creates an expectation that what we are about to hear from Mr. Hirabayashi is going to be very important. In fact, not only what develops on the stage is important, it is also deeply moving.
The story based on the real life Hirabayashi is about an American citizen of Japanese ancestry who had the courage to stand up to his government during the onset of WWII when citizens were being rounded up and placed into internment camps while being denied the due process afforded them by the Constitution. That they were denied their rights solely because of their ancestry is a frightening tale. Most of these citizens, and it must be remembered that these people were American citizens, also lost their homes, furnishings, and businesses. Some had relatives who at the same time were in the military defending the nation, and yes, its Constitution.
Michael Hisamoto commands the stage for a little over 100 minutes portraying a man who is both charming and steadfastly determined. Playwright Jeanne Sakata has included much humor in her work which makes this tragic story bearable. Using this humor, Mr. Hisamoto, with his infectious smile, is able to break the tension when it begins to overwhelm while at the same time using his eyes to covey the steely determination of his character. Make no mistake, Gordon Hirabayashi, though good natured, is tough as nails. And, as he points out using a Japanese proverb his mother taught him, “The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hit.”
Mr. Hisamoto plays all the characters with the exception of those that are voiced from off stage. He is accompanied by three kurogos, characters from Japanese theatre whose faces are fully covered and do not speak on their own. The kurogos move about while Hisamoto voices their lines. The use of lighting cast onto a minimally furnished stage along with some projections on the back wall and subtle mood music is all wonderfully effective. Director Benny Sato Ambush has done a masterful job.
As I watched We Hold These Truths I thought about the temptation to slip into feelings of self-righteousness as I felt a bond with Mr. Hirabayashi, but would I have felt the same way if I were there in 1942 after the attack on Pearl Harbor? I would like to think I would have been, but it is easier looking back at this dreadful period with the emotions of the time removed.
What I did conclude was how important it is for our Constitution to be upheld by judges who will not be ruled by emotion or the temptation to legislate from the bench. In the Hirabayashi case, which he fought all the way to the Supreme Court where the justices ruled unanimously against him even though this was certainly a clear case of his due process being denied. The fact that there was little public support for these Americans who were being deprived of their rights should never have played into the judge’s decision, but it certainly did.
Michael Hisamoto’s stirring performance not only honors Mr. Hirabayashi, but is also a reminder that while we may look back and like to believe we would have stood up for this courageous man, we should test ourselves as to whether or not we would do the same today in different situations. In this age where so many look to the courts to create laws we have to ask ourselves if we are able to respect the process, and if we can support decisions we are not happy with but are what is dictated by the Constitution. If that process had been followed in 1942 we would not have seen so many of our fellow Americans treated in such a shameful way.
I urge you to see We Hold These Truths and watch it with your eyes wide open. It is an important work, and one that should cause you to reflect no matter where on the political spectrum you fall.