Five minutes to eight.
For anyone else, five minutes to eight means exactly that. But when you are Japanese-American in 1942, just mere months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, you are guilty. Guilty as sin. There is nothing you can do to prove how less guilty you are. You have five minutes until the clock strikes eight. And at eight, you need to disappear. Because if you don’t, minute six could easily turn into day 90.
Before going into the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto to witness the exquisite production of “Hold These Truths,” from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, I knew nothing of Gordon Hirabayashi. Yet as the story began to unfold, I learned that this man was a true hero, one who stood up against the practice of placing anyone of Japanese ancestry into internment camps because of presumed association. It was a stand so powerful and principled, but more importantly, unheard of and wildly courageous.
The one-person show, written by Jeanne Sakata, directed with understated depth by Lisa Rothe, and featuring a masterful performance by Joel de la Fuente, starts off in a way that brings the audience directly into the fold, making those first few minutes some of the most powerful. That’s because the play starts off in the aisle, amongst the audience. It might seem small and insignificant, but Hirabayashi was like any of us he stood beside, especially those of us whose skin is darker than most. Hirabayashi, like many people of color, never believed he was the problem. He had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. He was a college kid growing up in Seattle, pursuing his undergraduate degree, hanging with friends, planning for the future.
But as is often the case with that crazy little thing called racism, those who committed such vile deeds on December 7th of 1941 shared a heritage with Hirabayashi. So off to a detention center he must go.
What the impeccable linguist de la Fuente gets so right is his ability to seamlessly flow as he tells the story. You never get a sense that he is full of rage, but his pain is much deeper. His revenge is his action, or, inaction. He is also resigned and discovers each layer of hurt as he must make decisions that are principled. Sure, it would have been easy to choose what would be best for him and his family, but it would not have been right.
Moments of great poignancy were met with moments of ludicrous levity. Consider the request he made, which was granted – an opportunity to serve out his jail sentence in an outdoor camp in Arizona. One problem – he couldn’t get transportation but was given the chance to get there himself from Washington. So off he went, hitchhiking to jail, finally arriving only to find that the guard didn’t have his paperwork. The rest of the story fell into the “you can’t make this stuff up” category, equal parts hilarity and hubris.
Ultimately, Hirabayashi went on to do great things in the years after and received the ultimate vindication more than 40 years later, and a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
As we witness plays like this in these modern times, they reflect the triumph of the human spirit, but are also infuriating. This play used to be a reminder of what we cannot ever let happen again. But now we are faced with images of brown children in cages, brown children who sob at the thigh of their petrified mothers, and a government who has yet to return every child to their weeping parents more than three months later.
There is something else that broke my heart, something that people of color face daily. Hirabayashi was American, and spent his entire sentence trying to prove that simple fact. It is not an issue that German or Irish Americans face, to name a few, but if your skin is browner than brown, you are constantly in a fight to prove that you belong. You notice the heartbreak on de la Fuente’s face as he makes that discovery on behalf of Hirabayashi. It can’t happen to me, because I’m American, right?
Sadly, that is completely wrong. And unfortunately, five minutes to eight turned to eight o’clock. And at that moment, Hirabayashi, who ultimately earned a Ph.D in sociology, took one of the most unfortunate classes he ever took. But in one of the most powerful quotes to end the play, a quote that has stayed with me, he referenced how long he lived, and what it should for mean for every one of us who shared the room with him.
Here is a plain truth to be held – after living a life of honor which ended in his 93rd year, Gordon Hirabayashi died a hero.
An American hero.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “Hold These Truths”
Written by Jeanne Sakata
Directed by Lisa Rothe
Starring Joel de la Fuente
The Word: Equal parts infuriating and inspiring, a masterful performance by de la Fuente soars, telling the powerful true story of one man and his fight against mass incarceration.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Through Sunday, Aug. 5th
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA 94301
Tickets range from $35 – $95
For tickets, call (650) 463-1960 or visit https://theatreworks.org/