Broadway actor Greg Watanabe brings resister Hirabayashi’s story to S.F.

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TRUTH PERSONIFIED ­— Greg Watanabe played Gordon Hirabayashi in Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths” Nov. 18 in San Francisco. Attorneys Donald Tamaki and Dale Minami joined Watanabe on stage for a post-performance Q-and-A-format session. photo by William Lee

Theater is terrific when the many elements that comprise a production come together as a whole, as was the case with “Hold These Truths,” a one-man play depicting the late civil rights icon Gordon Hirabayashi’s life.

The San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League sponsored the Nov. 18 performance, which took place at the Cowell Theatre in Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.

Hirabayashi, who has become somewhat of a mythic figure, and a name that comes up in law classes when constitutional issues are studied, was a special person, one of the few who challenged the incarceration of American Japanese living on the West Coast at the beginning of World War II.

Hirabayashi was a University of Washington student at the time, and with help from friends and lawyers, he was eventually able to get his case heard in our highest court, the Supreme Court. This was a landmark case, and behind the legend was a human being.

Hammered Down, But Not Defeated
Playwright and actor Jeanne Sakata brought this legend’s story alive by using Hirabayashi’s own words and through interviews with his family and friends. We are shown how, by standing on principle, defying his own family and community and the cultural values of his upbringing, Hirabayashi was able to play a major role in forcing the government to confront what it did.

The old Japanese cliche, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” which Hirabayashi’s father used to discourage him, is one of the themes running through the play. And indeed, he does get hammered down. At the time, the JACL was emphatically opposed to any legal challenges of the U.S. government, which they made clear in a number of declarations.

Broadway actor Greg Watanabe (“Allegiance”) played Hirabayashi. Having performed this part in several earlier productions, he displayed an ease and familiarity with the material, convincingly becoming the young man who just couldn’t let the government get away with its injustices.

On a bare stage with few props — some chairs and clothing — and sound effects, Watanabe tells us what Hirabayashi did and why he did it. He also shows Hirabayashi’s journey through jails, courts, hitchhiking to another jail, as well as his time as a conscientious objector, only to have his case narrowed to curfew violation.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled that Hirabayashi was guilty of that crime, leaving him to continue living with a conviction on his record.

The play continues on to the trial that reexamined Hirabayashi’s case 44 years later in Seattle. His convictions were ultimately vacated, with the court declaring that he had been right, and the government wrong — almost a miraculous occurrence.

This is quite a journey, a coming of age story that depicts Hirabayashi’s maturing as a citizen, played out on a broad historical canvas that dealt with major issues — the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and what citizenship means. It is a profoundly American story, and one man’s definition of what it means to be an American.

What could have been a bland history lesson turns out to be a character study of a lively, engaged, fully aware young man who knew what he was doing. (Disclaimer: I knew Gordon in Seattle.) As an older man, soft spoken and deliberate in manner, Hirabayashi was balanced as a person, not a fiery radical, but steadfast in his beliefs. He knew where his heart was.

Viewing Hirabayashi’s Case Through A Legal Lens
A panel discussion with lawyers who were instrumental in the historic overturning of Hirabayashi’s conviction — Dale Minami and Don Tamaki — along with Watanabe, followed the performance.

As they reminisced about the historic civil rights case, the lawyers asserted that this wartime injustice was not a mistake, but an “intentional collapse of democracy … an intentionally manipulated fraud.” In addressing how this miscarriage of justice was able to occur, Minami pointed out that eight of the justices on that Supreme Court had been appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, and that decisions can be influenced by personal connections and political considerations.

So the lesson is that we can’t always count on the courts to “do the right thing,” to be true to the rule of law. Minami and Tamaki also made it clear how important it is that citizens are involved and active as guardians of our democracy.

Pointing out parallels between civil rights violations that occurred during the 1940s and what is going on today, Tamaki and Minami touched on the travel bans and the harassment Muslims and other people of color are currently suffering. American Japanese, they claimed, have the moral authority to speak out because of their experience, to remind others of what happened to them and how easily it could happen again. They cited “StopRepeatingHistory.org,” the Website of Jay Hirabayashi, Holly Yasui and Karen Korematsu, children of Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui and Fred Korematsu, three men who challenged the mass incarceration of Nikkei during World War II. This is a movement to ensure that people are protected from government in times of stress and fear, that our laws and basic beliefs hold fast, and that we be participants in it.

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