BWW Interview: HOLD THESE TRUTHS at Arena Stage
Walking into Hold These Truths certainly carried expectations about what a play about the violations of the rights of the Japanese Americans during World War II might entail. Lights rose on the life story of an awkward young American man, sporting suspenders and an almost Midwestern speech pattern. Addressing the audience directly and in neighborly fashion, Gordon, played by Ryun Yu, is the kind of person anyone would like to know. He also happens to be Nisei, the American born son of Japanese immigrant parents, all of whom were subjected to one of the greatest injustices ever inflicted upon American citizens: the forced relocation from their homes to internment camps because of the fear they might be spies for Japan. Gordon makes the bold decision that he will break the law and refuse relocation and the grounds that it is unconstitutional. One can't help but reflect upon the current battles over who is a "real" American happening in America.
Hold These Truths, was first brought to the stage in 2007, in Los Angeles, by the same director and actor as grace the current production at Arena Stage. Director Jessica Kubzansky noted that when playwright Jeanne Sakata approached her about this work, she knew very little about this period of American history. Looking back, she now says, "The whole thing feels like a screaming cautionary note." The powerful story and the buoyancy of who Gordon was as a person quickly swayed Kubzansky. She said making the play was like being, "...in the room with a true American hero ." Actor Ryun Yu was also quickly charmed by Sakata's writing and Gordon's sense of humor. He recalls, "how the love that Jeanne had infused the script with just shone through it... it felt like an especially Gordon-like activity to find as much humor as possible in this story."
The humor assists the audience in digesting the dark parallels with current social trends and political issues around immigration, such as the proposed Muslim ban and, of course, the wall along our Southern border with Mexico. Both actor and director noted that in 2007, the play felt like a nice, historical piece. Yu said, " The fear that both lies within racism and that uses racism to accomplish political goals smells exactly the same now as it did in the 1940s." Kubzansky mentioned a recent incident that had trended on social media around her circles in Los Angeles. A viral video depicting a woman walking past a an Asian American family who were born and raised in the United States, yelling, "Go back to your own country!" Kubzansky found it extremely troubling and, like many people today, is shocked that this behavior still exists and, in some circles, is embraced. She pointed out that it's easy to see how peoples' vulnerabilities are cracked open and their reasoning lost when they give in to choices "based in racism and hysteria." However, she also pointed out, as the script does, that "ancestry is not a crime" and criticized the systemic racial inequity when "...there are white American shooters...no one is saying we need to make a travel ban on all Caucasians."
Despite all this, as it did for Gordon himself, hope for humanity and America shines through. Kubzansky said affectionately that Hold These Truths, is "really writing a love story between a man and his Constitution." His journey is a discovery that the Constitution didn't let him down. It was the result of "... the fallibility of the people entrusted to uphold it." Recalling his research for the play, Yu said, "they were reopening his case (in the '80s) and many people were wondering if it was a mistake to bring this stuff out into the open again. He said "We are doing this to make sure that it will never happen again to any other group of people."" Yu went on to reflect on our fast paced, high information, increased connectivity era, where he has seen fellow members of the Asian-American community feel that they must accept a limited role in American society. "...We have stories to tell, passion to give, and a place to take in this great pageant of America. We will and we must tell these stories, and take up our space in the collective psyche. Prejudice is short term... We are actually limiting our nation's real resource - the creative initiative of all of us."
"Prejudice is often based on a lack of understanding of common humanity," said Kubzansky, who places her hope in the theatre as a place of growth and healing. She said that how we ultimately make lasting change is by finding our way back to our common humanity, stating that no other diatribe, science, or article is a stronger tool to open the mind and the heart besides theatre. Yu adds, "We are living in a time of change. It demands from us boldness and the willingness to stand up and fight against injustice. But also in a time where we are increasingly connected, that we deal with each other in as kind and respectful a way as possible. Standing up out of love and standing up out of anger are different. The things that the first can accomplish are wondrous and will stand the test of time."
Photo Credit: Patrick Weishampel