Chapel Hill: Community

‘Hold These Truths’ confronts Japanese-American internment

PlayMakers Repertory Company will present the regional premiere of “Hold These Truths,” written by Jeanne Sakata, April 23-27.

Inspired by a true story, “Hold These Truths” takes place in Seattle during World War II, where University of Washington student Gordon Hirabayashi fights U.S. government orders to forcibly incarcerate people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast. As he struggles to reconcile his country’s betrayal with his passionate belief in the U.S. Constitution, Hirabayashi journeys toward a greater understanding of America’s triumphs — and confrontation with its failures.

Hirabayashi (1918-2012) was an American sociologist best known for his resistance to Japanese-American internment during World War II, one of only three persons to openly defy it. After being convicted for curfew violation, he was sentenced to 90 days in prison. The verdict was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in Hirabayashi v. United States (1943). In 1987, the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit overturned his conviction. In 2012, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Hirabayashi for his principled stand.

Stage and screen performer Joel de la Fuente will reprise his role as Hirabayashi plus over 30 other characters in the one-man drama, which had its New York premiere in October 2012 with Epic Theatre Ensemble. He was nominated for the 2013 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. The New Yorker said his performance was “gripping … eerily true to life.” The Washington Post called the play “eloquent” and Fuente “magnetic.”

Fuente plays Dr. Johann Pryce in the Netflix original series “Hemlock Grove” and appeared for 10 seasons on “Law & Order: SVU.”

Playwright Sakata, who is also an award-winning actress, became enamored of Hirabayashi’s story and interviewed him in the late 1990s. Members of her father’s family were forcibly expelled from their homes and locked up behind barbed wire in the Arizona desert during World War II, but she said they refused to talk of these painful wartime years. Sakata said meeting Hirabayashi “has been a life-changing and redemptive experience.”

Director Lisa Rothe directed the 2012 world premiere of “Penelope” for PlayMakers. She has also helmed productions at Milwaukee Shakespeare Company, Chautauqua Theatre Company and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre. In addition to her work in theater, she is developing a new opera (”Ada”) presented by The Center for Contemporary Opera. Rothe has taught and directed for many theater programs including NYU’s Graduate Acting Program, Yale School of Drama and The Juilliard School.

Carolina Asia Center, the University of North Carolina’s flagship organization for Asia-related activities, is sponsoring the opening night reception for “Hold These Truths.”