Arena Stage’s ‘Hold These Truths” – A History Lesson for Today

I always like a play where I can’t wait to exit the theater and research the history behind the story.  Written by Jeanne Sakata, Hold These Truths at Arena Stage is such a play. The script offers the straightforward tale of Gordon Hirabayashi, a University of Washington college student who challenged the constitutionality of the forced relocations of Japanese Americans during World War II. It’s noble and galvanizing, and doesn’t need embellishment in the form of plot twists or exaggeration – though some of the protagonist’s odyssey is delightfully unexpected (and comic). It is astonishing to me how little we acknowledge this dark and shameful chapter in American history, and I, for one, appreciated the education.

Gordon Hirabayashi was a Quaker and a conscientious objector. He took a stand not only for himself, but on behalf of all Americans facing oppression and persecution. Hirabayashi’s case rose all the way to the Supreme Court, and director Jessica Kubzansky calls the production “a love story between a man and his Constitution.” The audience will find Hirabayashi’s journey a compelling story told by a likeable raconteur.

The success of this one-man show rest squarely on the shoulders of Ryan Yu, who ably, and often humorously, portrays 37 different characters. In the intimate Kogod Cradle, Yu uses every inch of the stage. With Ben Zamora’s minimalist set and lighting, and John Zaleweski’s unobtrusive sound, Yu manages to transport the audience from his youth on a Washington farm, to an Arizona labor camp, to the Supreme Court simply by shifting three chairs, blowing his nose, and making minor adjustments to Cierra Coan’s costumes. Given the probability that compelling historic documentation and images exist, one can’t but feel the background screen was underutilized – Arena does such good digital display work – but asceticism doesn’t hobble the play.

Hold These Truths is a story of sepia-tinted idealism, forged by pressure into principled resistance. Sakata’s script is warm, witty, and stark. In today’s climate, the decades-old play is no longer a historical document. Hirabayashi’s quiet proclamation that “ancestry is not a crime” could ring out of today’s rallies and headlines. His stoic resistance in the face of injustice and racism is a patriotic call to stand for fairness, his conviction in the Constitution a truth we should all be reminded to hold dear.

Hold These Truths is playing at Arena Stage Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at the Mead Center for American Theater from through April 8, 2018  (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.

Photo credit: Photo by Chris Bennion for ACT-A Contemporary Theatre.

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