BWW Interview: Jeanne Sakata Spreading the Truth With HOLD THESE TRUTHS

BWW Interview: Jeanne Sakata Spreading the Truth With HOLD THESE TRUTHS

Ten years ago, actress/playwright Jeanne Sakata began writing down her various thoughts on her personal connections with the subject matter of her DAWN'S LIGHT: THE JOURNEY OF GORDON HIRABAYASHI. Through various reincarnations over the last decade, and a title change to HOLD THESE TRUTHS; Jeanne will be opening her play at The Pasadena Playhouse, in association with The East West Players, May 30, 2017. HOLD THESE TRUTHS recalls the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a University of Washington student, who began a 50-year quest to right the wrongs to his family and his fellow Japanese-Americans who were relocated to internment camps in World War II.

Los Angeles theatre goers (and TV watchers) might recognize Jeanne from her many onstage roles (and television guest appearances), such as: her 2002 LA Ovation Award-winning role in RED at The East West Players, in PO BOY TANGO at Northlight Theatre in 2009, in FIGARO at A Noise Within in 2015 (and guesting on NCIS Los Angeles, Dr. Ken, Desperate Housewives).

I was most excited to get Jeanne's insight on this dark and deplorable episode of American history.

Thank you, Jeanne for taking your considerable time to enlighten my fellow Asian-Americans' history.

You had the world premiere of your HOLD THESE TRUTHS ten years ago at The East West Players. How does it feel to celebrate its 10-year anniversary coming full circle with East West involved with the Pasadena Playhouse this month?

It feels incredibly gratifying. East West Players launched the play in 2007 with our world premiere, and since the script (then titled DAWN'S LIGHT) was new and untested, it was still in a lot of flux. I have vivid memories of wrestling with the script with Jessica (Kubzansky, HOLD THESE TRUTHS' director) and Ryun (Yu, the original Gordon), who both contributed so generously to its development, along with the rest of the team - we were dissecting, cutting, adding, exploring moments from every angle, and then there was the thrill of watching it all come to life onstage for the very first time. And I remember walking into the gorgeous interior of the Pasadena Playhouse as a young actor, and hoping I would get to work there someday. So, this feels like a special L.A. homecoming in more ways than one.

BWW Interview: Jeanne Sakata Spreading the Truth With HOLD THESE TRUTHSHow did you come to know of Gordon Hirabayashi's story?

In the 1990's, I saw on PBS, a documentary film made by John de Graaf called A Personal Matter: Hirabayashi vs. The United States, where I first learned about Gordon. And I was just floored, because here was this absolutely riveting story about a young Japanese-American college student who had taken such a brave stand for his rights as an American citizen, and I had never heard about him. It was fascinating, and enthralling, and also upsetting at the same time. I asked myself the same question that many people ask when they come to see the play - "Why haven't I heard this story before? Why isn't it in our history books?" After that, I became absolutely obsessed with the story and determined that I was going to find out everything I could about it.

Gordon, himself, didn't have to go into an internment camp, right?

That's right. Gordon adamantly refused to register for the camps on several occasions, baffling and confounding officials who couldn't figure out what to do with him. So, he never set foot in the camps as a prisoner, although he did visit a couple of them.

BWW Interview: Jeanne Sakata Spreading the Truth With HOLD THESE TRUTHSWere any of his immediate family interred?

His immediate family - his mother and father: Mitsu and Shungo, and his sister and brothers: Esther, Richard, James and Edward - they were all prisoners behind barbed wire at Tule Lake, along with all of his relatives who lived anywhere on the West Coast.

As part of your research, did you have any opportunity to talk to some of Gordon's family?

Yes, I actually met Gordon and his two brothers Ed and James, all on the same day. Gordon was visiting in California's Bay Area and he needed a ride from James' place in Mill Valley to Ed's in Glen Ellen, so he suggested I give him a ride and said we could do my first interview with him up at Ed's. So, my husband and I drove him up there. Gordon and Ed started reminiscing over lunch and pretty soon they were just laughing and ribbing each other and telling stories about when they were kids. So I just sat there listening, taking it all in. And a story that Ed told about the family "ofuro," or their Japanese-style outdoor wooden bath, made it into the beginning of the play. Later on, when I finished a first rough draft, James read it and gave me a lot of great suggestions as well. He also sent me writings by Shungo and Mitsu, their parents, and more anecdotes and historical details. And finally, in Seattle, I met and became good friends with his sister, Esther, who passed away only recently; she was the last surviving Hirabayashi sibling.

Do you have relatives that experienced the trials of being forced into the internment camps?

BWW Interview: Jeanne Sakata Spreading the Truth With HOLD THESE TRUTHSMy father's side of the family was living in my hometown of Watsonville, California, on the West Coast when WWII broke out - so, yes, my father and my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents, all had to pack up with just a few days' notice, and abandon their homes and schools and business, and they were all imprisoned in the Poston Camp in Arizona.

Were these stories something your family openly discussed talked about?

No, never. If it was ever mentioned, it was in a very oblique way, and then they would quickly change the subject. Later on, when I was older, and I was determined to learn more about the camps, I would ask my father questions; but it was clear from his silences that he didn't want to discuss it. I didn't get much further with my aunts and uncles - just little bits of information given here and there, but almost secretively, like they weren't supposed to talk about it out loud. You could feel how deeply those experiences were buried, how traumatic it must have been for them

You must have seen George Takei's ALLEGIANCE? Your thoughts?

ALLEGIANCE was a tremendous achievement, and I take my hat off to all who had a hand in its making. If you had told me years ago there would be a Broadway musical telling the story of the WWII Japanese-American concentration camps in my lifetime, I'm not sure I would have believed it. Watching it onstage, I wished my parents were still alive, so that they'd witness their history being acknowledged on the American stage like that. And I think what ALLEGIANCE did so successfully was to illuminate the very painful schisms that emerged in the Japanese-American community by the internees being forced to declare whether they would: 1) be willing to fight in the armed forces for the United States, and 2) be willing to swear unqualified allegiance BWW Interview: Jeanne Sakata Spreading the Truth With HOLD THESE TRUTHSto the United States and forswear all allegiance to the Japanese emperor. The paralyzing question of whether to answer "Yes, yes" or "No, no" caused great panic and turmoil in the camps and tragically set friend against friend, family member against family member, often for a lifetime.
The lasting impression I have of ALLEGIANCE is watching George stand onstage at the end as the elderly Sam Kimura, finally forced against his will to come to terms with that schism in his community, in his family, in his own scarred psyche. It's a powerful moment I won't ever forget, especially knowing George as a friend, and all he went through during WWII with his own family.

Were you in touch with Gordon's family when he was posthumously awarded the 2012 Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President Obama?

I've been in touch with Susan Carnahan, Gordon's second wife, over the years, and so when she told me that the Hirabayashi family was going to the White House to accept the Medal of Freedom's on Gordon's behalf, I was just so happy for all of them - and for Gordon's legacy, because he has been an unsung American hero for so many decades, and still unknown to many Americans. I wish this had happened in his lifetime, to have been honored at the very same White House whose occupants persecuted him in the 1940's for standing up for the Constitution. And when I watched the ceremony on the White House website, and President Obama giving Gordon's medal to Susan, it was incredibly moving.

BWW Interview: Jeanne Sakata Spreading the Truth With HOLD THESE TRUTHSWhat made you in 2012 decide to change the title of your play to HOLD THESE TRUTHS from its original DAWN'S LIGHT: THE JOURNEY OF GORDON HIRABAYASHI?

This happened when I was having talks with the Epic Theatre Ensemble and others in New York about an East Coast production. It was suggested that DAWN'S LIGHT, while being a beautiful image, didn't actually tell you much about what actually happens in the play. So, the brainstorming began for a new title. And I started riffing on phrases from the Constitution, from the Preamble, from the Declaration, the most obvious of these being "We hold these truths...". And my friend Zak Berkman, one of the Epic's founders, said, "Hey, what about that phrase without the 'we'?" And I knew that would be a great new title, because that is exactly what Gordon tries so hard to do through all the twists and turns of this unpredictable journey - to just hold on to the truths of the Constitution, and not let go, no matter what.

You bring HOLD THESE TRUTHS to high schools. Why did you condense your 90-minute show to half its length to tour schools? Was that to better fit into school class period restraints?

Yes, the show had to be no more than the 45 minutes of a class period, so that the play would finish before the buzzer rang!

What responses from students have surprised you the most?

Marty Yu, the actor that did the first East West Players school tour, told me this great story about when he did the play at a high school with a large Asian population. When the play finished, these students all jumped to their feet, cheering, and then they rushed up to Marty and surrounded him, all wanting to talk. They wanted to help him take down the set, and help him carry the props to the car. And that meant a great deal to me, because when I was a young student growing up at a time when so BWW Interview: Jeanne Sakata Spreading the Truth With HOLD THESE TRUTHSfew people on TV or in the magazines, or in the history books looked like me; I know how much it would have meant to have a performer of Asian ancestry come to my school, and share the story of an Asian-American hero.

You are working with director Jessica Kubzansky and Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi again. Ryun was the original Gordon and has played the role in numerous productions since the first. Any major changes or just minor tweaks between this production and the original 2007 East West production? Any specifics you kept in from the abridged school version?

With the invaluable input of Jess and Ryun, I'd actually made a number of changes in my original script for our EWP premiere. And then afterwards, one more change came about when I had the opportunity to do more work on the play with the New York Theatre Workshop at their Dartmouth Residency.
Up to that point, I had exclusively focused on Gordon's personal journey in fighting the US government's racially targeted curfew order, and later, Executive Order 9066. At Dartmouth, and working this time with the East Coast team of director Lisa Rothe and actor Joel de la Fuente, who each made wonderful contributions of their own, I discussed the play with Jim Nicola, Linda Chapman and Geoffrey Scott, who felt the play could benefit by addressing some additional questions: how did this mass BWW Interview: Jeanne Sakata Spreading the Truth With HOLD THESE TRUTHSviolation of thousands of American citizens' constitutional rights occur? What were the social and political forces at work that allowed it happen? Who was responsible? Who could have stopped it and didn't? They suggested some answers to these questions would be a great counterpoint to Gordon's personal quest for justice. So, I added some of that content, and it gave the play a scope and breadth that I've been very pleased with.

HOLD THESE TRUTHS lives on as you're taking it to DC's Arena Stage next year from February 23 through April 8. Any other plans for it? More school tours?

In addition to the Arena Stage production next year, I'm excited there will also be two new productions in 2017 in Massachusetts - at the New Century Theatre in South Hadley, Massachusetts, July 27th to August 5th; and the Lyric Stage Company in Boston, December 1st to 31st. There are also plans being developed to take the play as a dramatic staged reading into colleges, where it would be accompanied with a talk about the WWII Japanese-American experience. And I'm hoping to work on a screenplay soon!

What reactions would you love to see from the Pasadena Playhouse audiences after Ryun's curtain call?

Years ago, after one of our very first staged readings in the CTG Playwrights' Group, a Mexican-American woman in the audience said that the way Ryun played Gordon, with such an engaging "everyman" quality, along with the ordinary circumstances of Gordon's college life that had been so similar to her own - dorm life, dating, struggling to pay her tuition, struggling with racial discrimination, experiencing that first political awakening - that all these things made her feel like she WAS Gordon. So much so that in the play, when he was suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances where he had to make some agonizing choices, she felt that shock and confusion right along with him.
BWW Interview: Jeanne Sakata Spreading the Truth With HOLD THESE TRUTHSAnd I think that's what we are ultimately hoping for - that our audiences will identify in a very personal way with Gordon, that they will feel they are walking in his shoes. I'm sure Gordon himself would wish to impress upon us all, that it is up to each of us to fight to protect our rights as American citizens, that we can never take them for granted. As echoed in the title of John de Graaf's documentary film, the Constitution is a personal matter. It is only a piece of paper unless, we as American citizens, safeguard it and give it life.

Wow! Just from your answers, I can feel how close to your heart and passionate you are about this. I cannot wait to see HOLD THESE TRUTHS. Thank you again, Jeanne!

For HOLD THESE TRUTHS' ticket availability and performance schedule through June 25th, 2017; log onto www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

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