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BWW Review: HOLD THESE TRUTHS at Arena Stage

BWW Review: HOLD THESE TRUTHS at Arena Stage

Jeanne Sakata's solo play Hold These Truths is certainly a timely piece of theater for today's America. In an era of government-imposed travel bans, deportations, and a myriad of examples of ethnic and/or religious-based injustice, Gordon Hirabayashi's (Ryun Yu) story resonates very powerfully. Gordon, a first generation Japanese American, grew up on the West Coast feeling different because of his ancestry and was often the target of prejudicial behavior. Still, it's likely nothing in his formative years would prepare him for life as a Japanese American after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Like any other young man wanted to find love, receive a higher education, and make something of his life. His quest for betterment at the University of Washington, where he was introduced to the Quaker faith, ended abruptly.

World politics were playing out hundreds to thousands of miles away, but suddenly he and those close to him were personally impacted. His family had to abandon all they knew after Franklin D. Roosevelt's government mandated the forced relocation of over 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps for "security reasons." Gordon did not join them. Guided by his own principles (informed by his faith and related commitment to pacifism), he first chose to defy curfew, the executive order to relocate, and answering a questionnaire (necessary for induction into the military) that only targeted Japanese Americans. His acts of resistance did not come without consequences. Prison time and multiple legal battles ensue, and it would be decades until he received the justice he was seeking.

Hirabayashi's story is a most compelling and interesting one. As presented at Arena Stage, however, the production is less interesting than it probably should be. The detailed script - undoubtedly the result of some considerable research - tries to cover too much ground (both time and subject matter) and suffers from multiple jarring transitions. A personal event like a wedding receives a few minutes of attention and then, with barely a pause, we're back in the world of Hirabayashi's legal troubles. While it's obvious that all of the elements of Hirabayashi's life, told in flashback format, are impacted by others, the idea of everything "bleeding over" is handled somewhat carelessly in the writing. Likewise, Sakata introduces other characters into Hirabayashi's tale of injustice and perseverance (rightfully). These moments are a welcome respite from the long monologues for the main character, but left me wondering whether the story, which involves multiple players, would be better presented by a small ensemble of actors.

Using a small ensemble of actors would also lessen the acting burden on Ryun Yu. While Yu clearly has the technical acting skill, he did not convince me that he's engaging enough of a performer to truly carry such a show and keep me, the audience member, fully invested for over 90 minutes - least as performed on a Sunday afternoon at Arena Stage (he's played the role before in other productions).

The production elements are also insufficient for such an important story. While I normally am a "story first" kind of reviewer, the set and lighting design (Ben Zamora) do nothing to draw me into Hirabayashi's world and are similar to what you might find in a festival or workshop setting. Yu moves three wooden chairs around a wooden platform. These chairs prove useful when Yu is tasked to share a conversation Hirabayashi has with someone else, but I could not, for the life of me, figure out the artistic rationale for using just a few chairs and a lighted backdrop (the latter was more baffling). Cierra Coan's costumes, however, help the actor transform from one age to another (child, a young man, and an old man).

This production, directed by Jessica Kubzansky, is worthy of an audience based on the story alone, but I still wonder if the story might be treated better with another medium - be in a film or a book. If it has to be a theater piece, a different set of creative choices might have had a different result.

Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

HOLD THESE TRUTHS plays at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC - through April 8, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 202-488-3300.

Photo Credit: Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in HOLD THESE TRUTHS; by Patrick Weishampel for Portland Center Stage.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry

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