Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Since Thomas Jefferson penned those words for the Declaration of Independence, their truth has been tested many times in American history. In no instance were they proven not to hold as fast as the ink itself has on the surviving National Archives document as during World War II when 120,000 Japanese Americanstwo thirds of whom were U.S. citizenswere sent to internment camps. While that fact is now finally being taught in most American history classes (unlike the first fifty or so years after the war), there are many stories of heroes and hardships still untold and unknown by most of this country.
A child of Japanese internees herself, playwright Jeanne Sakata ran across one such story, so incredible for its audacious and persistent gumption of one man's stand against the wartime edictOrder 9066 signed by President Franklin Rooseveltthat her resulting play, Truth Be Told, could be at first glance thought to be a work of pure fiction. But the story that Truth Be Told tells of one young Japanese Americanborn and bred in Seattle, Washingtonis very much true, as the playwright herself learned in interviewing Gordon Hirabayashi before his death in 2012. After an initial version premiered in Los Angeles in 2007 and the present version opened Off-Broadway in 2012, Jeanne Sakata's impactful, one-man show finally has its long overdue Bay Area premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, starring the same man who opened the show in New York and has played the part in many productions since, Joel de la Fuente.
Relating the story of Mr. Hirabayashi in the first-person, Joel de la Fuente's low-key, direct style of narration easily pulls us in as an audience, and we soon forget the actor is not the actual man. As Gordon Hirabayashi, Mr. de la Fuente opens the play in 1983 as a 65-year-old professor of sociology before quickly reverting to his teen-turning-adult years. As this young man, he relates stories about arriving as a wide-eyed freshman at the University of Washington, Seattle; meeting a friendly face who would eventually become his wife, Esther Schmoe; and running into signs everywhere from restaurants and hotels to UWS's Fraternity Row saying, "No Japanese Allowed Here."
Relocation in 1940 to New York City seemed to change everything for Gordon as he found himself allowed to sit in the orchestra section of movie houses and welcomed at the local diner for a 15-cent dinner ("I finally felt I had joined the human race"). But then came December 7, 1942. It was soon after he got back to Seattle to check on his parents that it hit home for Gordon that "our faces are the faces of the enemy" to most everyone else around them in the city and nation that was still their home.
The sequence of events of late 1942 that Mr. de la Fuente as young Gordon now begins to relate are so strikingly similar as to be shocking to what we now know also had just occurred throughout Germany: strict 8 p.m. curfews for all Japanese Americans; no one allowed to go beyond a five-mile radius of home; signs popping up everywhere of "No Japs Served Here." Even with rumors swirling everywhere, the young man in front of us continues to believe in early 1943 that the Constitution (whose Preamble he had proudly once memorized) would protect him and his family and that the Justice Department and the President "would never let it happen here." But just as in Germany for Jews, anyone deemed 1/16 Japanese was soon declared a security threat and was ordered to show up for train trips to places far away where barbed wires and armed guards awaited them.
And now the true tale becomes remarkably like fiction as the heretofore easygoing Gordon begins to increase his intensity as he tells of his decision to resist the order to be interned (after already having signed up as a conscientious objector, influenced by his new-found love of Quaker principles). Relating his encounters with FBI members and local prison directors as well as recounting a series of court appearances and appeals (including twice all the way to the Supreme Court), Gordon becomes the voices and persona of many of those he meets along the way. He at times is his father, who at one point comes from the internment camp to his prison cell, volunteering to stay with him there; at other times, he is the sweet voice of a worried mother or a girlfriend trying to cheer him up with banana cream pie.
The twists and turns only grow more jaw-dropping as we hear how Gordon at one point turns himself into a federal prison after hitchhiking 1600 miles to get there, stopping along the way for an under-the-stars hot tub discussion with fellow conscientious objectors who were Hopi Indians. (This entire trip has to be heard in all detail to be believedand then to be totally admired!)
What perhaps is even more incredulous is that this young manone of three Japanese Americans who during the war actually defied the U.S. mandate all the way to the Supreme Courttells us with a straight face, "I cannot, will not, turn my back on the Constitution of the United States." How many of us would be willing to continue such faith in a document that all officials to the very top have completely ignored?
The magnetic storytelling power of Joel de la Fuente is further enhanced by the director, who now has a ten-year history with the play, Lisa Rothe. Utilizing to the fullest the sparse but meaningful stage design of Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams (three chairs, a suitcase, one hanging lit globe, and a cock-eyed window pane floating in the sky), the director never lets the actor remain long in one position as his story progresses, mirroring his own antsy energy with his movement.
As Gordon continues to talk to us as if we are in his living room, he repositions chairs to become a train, he opens the suitcase to change partially into another outfit designed by Margaret Weedon, or he is confined within a jail cell starkly outlined by the lighting designed by Cat Tate Starmer. Ms. Starmer's lighting also becomes the background reds, purples, golds and blues that match the story's latest surprise announcement or turn of events while her floor of dappled, designed shadows place Mr. de la Fuente in settings sometimes as surreal as the story he is telling us. Daniel Kluger's sound mastery brings in the voices of actual Japanese internees, the latest broadcasts that further and further restricted their lives, and other realistic soundsboth urban and rural.
Early on, the younger Gordon quotes to us a Japanese saying his father used to tell him as a boy, "The nail that sticks out is the one who gets hit." We understand the wisdom in those words as he describes his history of trials and imprisonments for the defiance he shows time and again to demands by a government he believes no longer follows its own Constitution. But as we listen to the victories that eventually also are awarded himalbeit after decades of delaythe older Gordon comes back to interject that his father also had an addendum: "... Unless the hammer is smaller than the nail."
The small but mighty "nail" whose story Jeanne Sakata describes in her Truth Be Told certainly proves that one individual can stick to age-old, deeply believed principles of American democracy and eventually be heard. The lesson in this TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production is that the journey may be long and difficult and often look hopeless, but it is the right one to take for the good of all.
Such a lesson from these U.S. governmental atrocities of seventy-five years ago is unfortunately relevant today as, once again, many U.S. citizens are seeing the Constitution under siege by the very government charged with protecting it. Young men and women near the same age as Gordon in 1942 are currently finding themselves challenged to step up and make a difference, even when the odds are stacked heavily against them. If he were still alive, surely Gordon Hirabayashi would be applauding them.
Truth Be Told, through August 5, 2018, at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at www.theatreworks.org.