JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Playwright Jeanne Sakata on ‘Hold These Truths’

“From the very beginning I saw Gordon Hirabayashi’s story as a unique and quintessentially American story, and although he was Japanese American himself, I hoped that the play would have a broad appeal, not just for that community, or just the Asian American community, but for people of all ages, ethnicities, and walks of life.” (Lia Chang)

By Ann Chow (Hyogo-ken, 2007-09) for JQ magazine. Ann is a native New Yorker who gets scared of the big, scary world, but ventures out into it anyway. She coined the term “stealth gaijin” (or thinks she did because she hadn’t heard of it before writing a bunch of articles under that moniker during her time on JET). When not portraying 14-year-olds on Gossip Girl, she can sometimes be found playing a (much older) law clerk on Law and Order: SVU.

Jeanne Sakata is an award-winning stage actress who has performed with many well-known companies on the country’s biggest stages, including the Lincoln Center Theater and the John F. Kennedy Center. She made her playwriting debut in 2007 with Hold These Truths (formerly Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi), the story of the Japanese American activist and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, who passed away earlier this year at age 93.

Hold These Truths first premiered in 2007, and has been performed multiple times around the country since then. It is now a part of the Library of Congress Playwrights Archive in the Asian American Pacific Islander Collection in Washington, D.C., and is now having its Epic Theatre Ensemble New York premiere run (starring Joel de la Fuente and directed by Lisa Rothe) through Nov. 18 at the Theater at the 14th Street Y in repertory with Dispatches from (A)mended America.

JQ recently spoke with Sakata about her profound fascination with Hirabayashi’s life, the meticulous research that went into writing Hold These Truths, and what she hopes the play will accomplish.

What are the goals you are trying to achieve with Hold These Truths?

I hope, first, that Hold These Truths will spread awareness of Gordon Hirabayashi, whose story is still virtually unknown to so many Americans. As a young college student during World War II, Gordon stood up for the principles of the Constitution when the United States government failed miserably to do so, persecuting and imprisoning him for his actions. Earlier this year, Gordon passed away in January at the age of 93, and, amazingly, a few months later in April, President Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for the courageous stand he took so many decades ago. So I feel, this year especially, that Gordon’s story is a vitally important one to anyone who cares about our country, and the principles of the Constitution. Second, I hope the play will spread awareness on the East Coast of the mass incarceration of all people of Japanese ancestry during World War II on the West Coast, as knowledge of this tragedy seems to be much less prevalent here than out west.

In general, people on the West Coast know more about this time in American history. What reactions do you expect now that it’s playing here in New York?

As I said earlier, one common reaction we’ve had is that of shock that something so horrible happened during the World War II years in America. Many of our East Coast audience members who lived through those years have said that they were aware that “something bad” happened to the Japanese on the West Coast during that time, but they did not know just how bad it was. For example, they did not know that anyone in Seattle who was one-sixteenth Japanese, or babies from orphanages who had any Japanese blood, were ordered to be penned up behind barbed wire. They don’t know that so many children and young American citizens were torn out of their schools and imprisoned, and for so many years. But I also hope the reaction to Gordon’s story we’ve had here so far will continue—that people will be delighted, as well as profoundly moved and inspired, to learn about him.

How did you choose the subject matter for the play? Did you have family that lived in the internment camps?

I myself am a third-generation Japanese American, and in the 1990s I happened to see a documentary video about Gordon titled A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi vs. the United States. I was shocked that I had never heard his story before, and I started to find out everything I could about him. The more I read, the more fascinated and intrigued I became. The story just grasped me and wouldn’t let me go, becoming an obsession, and I knew I couldn’t rest until I tried to write a play about Gordon.

My mother’s side of the family was living in Colorado during World War II, and so did not have to go to the camps, although they experienced plenty of hostility and racism in the town where they lived.  My father’s family, however, all lived in Watsonville on California’s West Coast, so all of them were rounded up and imprisoned in the camp in Poston, Arizona. As I was growing up, my father and aunts and uncles never spoke of the experience, I believe, because it was so traumatic for them, as it was for so many others.

In what way did your experience as an actress help you create the show?

Being an actor myself did help in several ways! First, I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to perform the works of many wonderful playwrights, and so those plays were already in my consciousness to learn from and be inspired by. Also, because of my acting experience, I think I’ve developed a good sense of rhythm in dialogue and narrative, and of what we actors call “subtext”—that is, what a character is actually feeling and thinking beneath his spoken words. And finally, as an actor myself, I know a juicy part when I see one! And so I had great fun in creating not only the character of Gordon, but also the vast and complex array of characters that Gordon meets along the course of the play. Playing them “in my head” helped enormously in writing them!

Joel de la Fuente in a scene from Hold These Truths. (Steven Boling)

What kind of research did you do to aid you in the process of writing the play? Was there anything in particular from your research that helped you?

I did an extensive amount of research at the University of Washington, where Gordon was attending college when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The university has a fantastic collection of resources—newspaper articles, letters, yearbooks, interview transcripts, and so forth—for anyone who wants to research the Seattle Japanese community of that time. On a broader scale, I looked at all kinds of books and videos that related to the World War II Japanese American experience. Most helpful to me, though, were the interviews that I did with Gordon myself, as I was able to ask him about the details that most fascinated me; Peter Irons’ book Justice at War, which chronicles the legal challenges of Gordon, Min Yasui, Fred Korematsu, and Mitsue Endo; and most of all, the enthralling letters that Gordon wrote during and after his imprisonment, donated to the university by his friend Eleanor Ring. Those letters helped tremendously in imagining the voice of the younger Gordon, and without them I can’t imagine I could have ever written the play.

Theatre and television/film tend to reach different audiences. Why did you choose to write this as a stage play rather than a screenplay?

My first love is the theater, and it is the theater from which I’ve drawn the most powerful and deepest inspiration as an artist. Theater is a person-to-person ritual that is experienced live, and I felt that was the most powerful and intimate way to tell this story. It’s also a world I am much more familiar with, though I’d welcome the opportunity to learn more about film, and it’s likely I will attempt a screenplay in the future. Also, as a former college English literature major, I love language, literature, and poetry, and because film is primarily a visual medium rather than a literary one, I wanted to express Gordon’s story in a way that would allow for more of his thoughts and feelings and passions to be expressed by the spoken word.

Why did you think a one-man show would be the best way to tell this story?

Actually, there are equally compelling reasons for Gordon’s story to be told by way of a multi-character play. But the solo show was my first inspiration, and I loved the idea of the older Gordon looking back on his life’s journey, and remembering all the people that peopled his life during his World War II adventures by embodying them himself onstage. Also, since this is very much a pre-civil rights era, there was no mass social protest behind Gordon when he took his stand. Although he did have a small circle of loyal supporters, on the whole his stand was a very lonely one, and he encountered vehement opposition from many of his friends, the Japanese American community leaders of the time, and even his own mother! So a solo show seemed like a great way to go, because it would emphasize and underscore the singularity of what he did.

Did you have a say in how Joel de la Fuente got cast?

The amazing thing about Joel is that although we had mutual friends, I had actually never met him, nor seen any of his work, before I agreed to his being cast in our weeklong Dartmouth workshop with the New York Theatre Workshop. The first time we met was at the Penn Station platform before we boarded the train to Dartmouth! And people have been very surprised when I’ve told them that, and asked how I could entrust the play to someone I’d never met. But Jack Doulin, the casting director at NYTW, Zak Berkman, who was then at the Epic Theatre Ensemble, and Lisa Rothe, our New York director, all recommended him so enthusiastically for this role that I just knew it was meant to be that he would do it, and do it brilliantly, which he continues to do.

What was Gordon Hirabayashi’s reaction when you said you wanted to write a play about his experiences during that time?

Gordon was very relaxed and open about it, very welcoming. I am actually not the first person to write a play about Gordon—Rick Shiomi, who just retired from being artistic director of the Mu Theatre in Minneapolis, wrote a multi-character play about Gordon some years back, and so Gordon had been through that process before, where a playwright wanted to tell his story onstage.  And many, many people have asked Gordon for interviews over the years, so he was used to that process as well. But when he found out that I had never written a play before, I think he sort of took me under his wing and treated me like one of his students, encouraging me to read the works of experienced playwrights and consult them, recommending research I might benefit from, even urging me to invent conversations and details when he couldn’t remember them!

Steven Boling

How much was he involved in the process?

Though I did extensive interviews with Gordon, he wasn’t actively involved in the actual writing of the play. I would call him up every now and then to check something out, or ask some more questions, or request him to look over a scene I had written. But Gordon led such an intensely busy and active life that usually when I called, he was on his way to somewhere else—a Quaker convention, a conference, a ceremony where he would be honored, a trip to visit friends or family, and so forth. In between all his engagements and travels, he managed to read a few scenes here and there, and would kindly give me a few comments and suggestions, and always encouraged me to keep going and do my best, but let’s just say he had MUCH more in his life to think about than my play!

Any funny stories from rehearsals or from interviewing Gordon?

There were many! I was talking to Gordon once about his being a Quaker, and for some reason I made the observation that Richard Nixon had been one, too. And his response, made with a totally straight face, was: “Ah, yes. Richard Nixon. A very un-Quaker Quaker.” And I just cracked up. Another favorite moment: I was asking him about when he first started to date. He chuckled and said he was “just a shy Nisei boy” who was intimidated by girls. I said, “But Gordon, you weren’t afraid to stand up to the U.S. government.” He said, “Well, I wasn’t afraid of the U.S. government, but I was sure scared of girls.” Priceless!

He passed away in January this year, so he was unable to see the final version. Did he see the play while in rehearsals? What did he think?

No, unfortunately he never saw the play performed onstage or in rehearsals, because by the time we had our premiere with the East West Players in Los Angeles in 2007, he had already been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for a number of years, to which he finally succumbed in January of this year. So I treasure the memory of those interviews I did with him, and the time I spent with him, all the more.

What aspect of the play are you most proud of?

As I said, from the very beginning I saw Gordon’s story as a unique and quintessentially American story, and although he was Japanese American himself, I hoped that the play would have a broad appeal, not just for that community, or just the Asian American community, but for people of all ages, ethnicities, and walks of life. That has been the experience so far, with many people from very diverse communities and backgrounds coming up to us afterwards and saying how much the story moved them, how shocked they are that they had never heard of Gordon before, and what a vitally important story it is for our country and for our times. So that has been very gratifying.

Also, I feel especially proud when we do the show for Asian American kids who have never heard of Gordon, and who may never have learned about Asian American heroic figures in school. There was one time during our East West Players Theatre for Youth tour when this happened, and the kids just ran up and surrounded Marty Yu, the actor playing Gordon, after the performance, and clapped and cheered. I also feel tremendously proud of the actors, directors and designers, both in L.A. and New York, who have lent their talents to the play over the last few years.  Everyone has done such stellar work in bringing this story to life onstage, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with them.

Lia Chang

What kind of coverage have you received so far from the Japanese media here about this story?

We are still in rehearsal and haven’t opened yet, so we are just now in the process of sharing word with Japanese and Japanese American media. We had two free workshop performances in May, which were attended by a few members of the Japanese Consulate, and by a local New York City group called Japanese Americans/Japanese in America, as well as other individuals from the Japanese American community. Beyond specifically Japanese media, we’ve also had great support getting the word out through generous New York-based friends like Lia Chang, Julie Azuma, Tamio Spiegel, Grant Ujifusa, Kathryn Bannai, and more, and organizations like Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, NYU’s Asian American Research Institute, Japanese American Association, CUNY’s Asian American/Asian Research Institute, Asian American Arts Alliance, and so forth. We’ll continue reaching out and spreading word once we open, and are always welcoming suggestions for other groups we can contact.

How have American/Japanese/Japanese-American audiences reacted after seeing the play?

So many have come up to me and expressed thanks for writing the play, as well as great excitement that the story is being told on the American stage. In many post-show discussions, the play provokes much discussion about the World War II years, and many Japanese Americans have shared their own personal wartime experiences with the other people in attendance. That has been so rewarding, because our history in this country was overlooked for so many years. It’s also especially delightful when a Nisei man or woman comes up to me and says that he or she went to school with Gordon, or knew him in Seattle, or became friends with him in their later years, and tells me a fresh story about him that I never heard before.

George Takei’s musical Allegiance is also about the internment of Japanese and Japanese-American people during World War II. If you’ve seen it, what are the parallels and differences between your show and his?

Our two shows are very different, but I see them as totally complimentary of each other, because in terms of the events they address they represent two sides of the same historical coin, so to speak, in that they both deal with the tragic consequences of Executive Order 9066. Where they differ is in their dramatic styles and storyline: Allegiance is a big traditional Broadway-style musical with an orchestra, musical numbers, a detailed set, a cast and chorus, and it tells the story of one family, the Kimuras, who are forced out of their homes and into the barbed wire camps, where most of the work takes place. Hold These Truths, on the other hand, is an intimate one-man show with a deliberately spare and minimalist set, and which takes place almost entirely outside the camps. It is not a story of the internment per se, but rather of a young Nisei man who openly defied and legally challenged the internment, and of the obstacles he fought to overcome on the way.

How can someone who sees this show bring light to this part of American history?

In terms of the play itself, if Hold These Truths does well here in New York City in terms of audience attendance, it makes it much more likely that we can take the play to other theatres and venues in other parts of the country—so one very simple thing people can do is to spread word about the play, and to tell all their friends and family to come see it! Writing about the show online, recommending it on Facebook and Twitter and so forth—and “liking” our Hold These Truths Facebook page—is a great way to keep the buzz going and to help us get more opportunities to share Gordon’s story with more people. And in terms of the historical events it portrays, if you are a teacher or educator or writer, there are so many great resources now to learn more about this period of American history, such as the website of the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and that of the Densho Archives, an online collection of resource material that is just outstanding—photos, documents, articles, interviews. Show a film about this period of history to your group or classroom, and encourage discussion afterward!  Or donate money to places like the National Museum and Densho, to keep their important work alive.

Finally, what projects are you doing next?

I have several ideas for new plays, which I’ve begun to sketch out and work on. One is an adaptation of a favorite book, one is a Youth Theatre Project, and one is a possible show that I would write and perform in myself. And, back home in Los Angeles, I am hoping to take a screenwriting and filmmaking course to become more familiar with that genre, and to prepare for the possibility of turning my play into a screenplay. But my first love is acting, and this past year, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in getting to tackle some great roles—workshopping new Asian American plays at Sundance Theatre Institute and Ojai Playwrights Festival, playing the title character in one of my favorite plays, George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession at L.A.’s Antaeus Company Classics Fest, playing the inspiring Cambodian civil rights activist Mu Sochua in a play called Seven at USC, and performing in Julia Cho’s brilliant play The Language Archive at East West Players. So I am keeping my fingers crossed that my lucky streak will continue into this coming year!

Hold These Truths runs through Nov. 18 at the Theater of the 14th Street Y. For additional reviews and press, visit www.holdthesetruths.info.

A special 25% discount ticket offer is available to all JETAANY members at http://epictheatreensemble.org/holdthesetruths. Enter discount code EPIJET30 at checkout. Offer good for two tickets per patron for $30 for all performances through October.