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Racism, injustice and the echo of history in the one-man internment drama 'Hold These Truths'

Racism, injustice and the echo of history in the one-man internment drama 'Hold These Truths'
Ryun Yu in "Hold These Truths" at Pasadena Playhouse. (Jim Cox)

In turbulent times, history itself becomes a source of suspenseful drama, as anxious citizens look to the past to predict what fresh hell is in store for them.

"Hold These Truths," a solo drama written by Jeanne Sakata and starring Ryun Yu, recounts one man's experience of the national stain of Japanese internment during World War II. The drama, which opened Sunday at Pasadena Playhouse, seems to speak directly to current headlines about terrorism and President Trump's controversial travel ban.

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But this history, in which national security is pitted against civil liberties, is always urgently relevant. When Lewis Segal reviewed the play's premiere (under a different title) for The Times in 2007, he began with the following words: "At a moment in our history when American justice and perhaps even our sense of national purpose have eroded from the government's response to an outside threat, 'Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi,' couldn't be more timely."

The lessons of our constitutional missteps are never learned for good. They must continually be relearned. Which is why I wish the current White House, along with young people throughout the nation, could be compelled to attend a performance of "Hold These Truths."

The story of Gordon Hirabayashi, an American-born college student of Japanese ancestry who challenged the executive order demanding mass incarceration of all people of Japanese heritage on the West Coast after the attack on Pearl Harbor, reminds us that it is precisely when our bedrock values are hardest to defend that we must stand most firmly behind them.

The play, which is the product of interviews the playwright conducted with Hirabayashi as part of her research, may be earnestly laid out. This isn't a probing character study. Rhetorical flourishes at the beginning and end seem stilted, and the personality tidbits that are introduced feel a bit forced. Director Jessica Kubzansky probably should have cut the cutesy byplay between Yu and the audience.

Sakata succeeds best when simply laying out the facts of the story. What makes what happened to Hirabayashi so painful is that it contradicted the democratic principles that inspired his patriotic love and loyalty despite the racism he and his family were subjected to. But his belief in justice never wavers even when the Supreme Court betrays his understanding of cherished constitutional precepts.

Yu, who is reprising his performance, slips into his character at various stages of his life with the same ease with which he dons Hirabayashi's comfortable college cardigan. The actor radiates goodwill without seeming soppy.

Certain character traits may be illustrated with the broadness of an "Afterschool Special." But Yu easily wins over our trust and affection. More important, the moral comes through loud and clear: If Americans such as Hirabayashi have to be rounded up, then no one in America should ever feel safe.

Kubzansky's clean staging on a set by Ben Zamora (who is also responsible for the attractive lighting) provides an effective showcase for us to engage with this history. Hirabayashi's tale once again "couldn't be more timely." For those right now agonizing that America is failing to live up to its ideals, "Hold These Truths" gives hope that the arc of the moral universe does indeed eventually bend toward justice.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Hold These Truths’

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends June 25

Tickets: $25-$115

Information: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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