A one-man play recounting the shocking and shameful internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, Jeanne Sakata’s Hold These Truths (★★) is a timely reminder that the Constitution is only as morally sound as its interpreters. Inspired by the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a young Japanese-American man imprisoned in the 1940s for challenging the constitutionality of his internment, the show recounts his experiences through a well-crafted blend of memories, vignettes and expository.
But if Sakata describes the facts with clarity — and if her Hirabayashi is given periodic moments to note his anger and humiliation — Hold These Truths never quite finds the true emotional cost of the experience. Indeed, Sakata’s steady dosing of a light, almost too-cute humor all but ensures the surface here is never meaningfully scratched. It’s a choice that may make the subject matter more palatable, but it leaves the play feeling more like fodder for a high school field trip than a place for deeper, more complex reflection.
Making the most of the material, Ryun Yu brings impressive energy and charisma. But once it’s clear the play will never go dark or deep, Yu is in the unenviable position of trying to impart the importance of the story despite Hirabayashi’s aw-shucks demeanor, the sketchy dimensions of the vignettes, and the silly humor. Though director Jessica Kubzansky clears ground for Yu to deliver some genuine moments of angst-endowed expository, little can resonate in such a shallow overall space.
Thus, Hold These Truths is something of a missed opportunity. With such serious subject matter — especially in light of today’s envelope-pushing White House policies — this was a chance to deliver some poignant home truths with pointed emotional realism. We needed less of Sakata’s take on Hirabayashi’s bemused encounters with gormless hicks and far more of what it is like to experience the unthinkable: the instant loss of all rights and protections with no right of reply. Just a few moments of genuine fear, self-doubt or despair — played for keeps — would have moved this out of the informative and into the memorable.
But even if Hold These Truths begins and ends as more educational than dramatic theater, it’s worth seeing simply because it is a piece of American history too important — and now relevant — to ignore.
Hold These Truths runs to April 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW. Tickets are $71 to $111. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.
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