The United States Constitution has been coming up regularly in this most fractious and ridiculous of political seasons.
We’ve had the “pocket constitutionalists” of the Sagebrush Rebellion taking over a bird sanctuary in Eastern Oregon because (if I have their line of reasoning straight) all government beyond the county level is illegitimate and the Constitution proves that nothing in the Constitution actually applies to them.
We’ve had, amid an epidemic of mass shootings and more private gun-related tragedies, a hunkering-down on an antiquated and nonsensical interpretation of a few confusingly punctuated words in the Second Amendment that are alleged to guarantee the right to carry military weapons openly in houses of worship and kindergarten classrooms.
We’ve had the presidential candidate of an actual major political party loudly declaring he will build a wall across the southern border of the United States and make the Mexican government pay for it – an act that would be at once so environmentally irresponsible, morally reprehensible, patently unconstitutional, and impossible to achieve that I really don’t know where to begin talking about it.
How refreshing, then, to run across a piece of theater that tells the story of a true hero of the never-ending battle to protect the Constitution, and thus the American people in their everyday lives, against the ever-present forces trying to chip away at it for selfish or ideological reasons, or because of bouts of paranoia or sheer fright.
The title of Jeanne Sakata’s play Hold These Truths, which opened Friday night in the Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage, comes not from the Constitution but from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
But those Enlightenment principles, if not the actual words, are also embedded in the Constitution, most specifically in the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 and granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” a move meant to grant full citizenship status to slaves freed in the recent Civil War. The amendment’s second, and equally important, guarantee vowed equal protection under the laws, forbidding any state from denying to any citizen “life, liberty or property without due process of law.”
Sakata’s play is based on the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Nisei, or second generation, Japanese American student at the University of Washington in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Like so many others, he was caught in the machinations of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066 shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, an order that created prison camps across the West and forced 120,000-odd Japanese Americans into confinement. The mass incarceration was obviously unconstitutional, based on racial identity and utterly lacking in due process. Yet a series of courts up to the Supreme Court ruled, in essence, that in time of war, safety (or the mere notion of safety, since almost none of the incarcerees had criminal records or known ties to enemy agents) trumped due process and individual rights. Panic, and racially based resentment, rushed in where prudence should have prevailed.
Further, the haste of the action meant that many Japanese Americans had to abandon their property or sell it on the cheap before they were herded into the camps. Many never received their property back after the war, paralleling the situation of European Jews who sold their artwork and other property on the cheap or had it confiscated by the Nazis: three-quarters of a century later, lawsuits over repatriation of much of that stolen property are still keeping lawyers and the courts busy.
Hold These Truths is a one-person play performed by the actor Ryun Yu and directed by Jessica Kubzansky, who also teamed with Sakata on its premiere production in Los Angeles in 2007 and have repeated it in New York, Seattle, and elsewhere. It comes to Portland in the midst of a national rise in ethnic intolerance, from anti-Latino sentiment to fear of immigrants and refugees to demands (again, by the blustering presidential candidate) that all Muslims be barred from entering the country. Once again, individual rights are being weighed against prejudice and paranoia, and once again the outcome is by no means guaranteed. The Constitution may be constant, at least in its wording, but its interpreters are only human.
In his bravura ninety-minute performance, Yu presents a striking portrait of an unlikely hero and the people who helped him or fought with him along the way. We meet Hirabayashi as a happy-go-lucky young man, the eldest son of traditional parents and an ebullient student who embraces campus life: as his roommate comments, he seems to be majoring in extracurricular activities. He leads an ordinary life: meets a girl, goes out with his buddies for cheap food, jokes about his parents’ strict ways, and approaches life with a love for and confidence in the ideals and beliefs of his country.
It all comes tumbling down on December 6, 1941, when Japanese planes strike Pearl Harbor. Suddenly Gordon is a marked man. Life changes in little and larger ways: He and other Japanese Americans are subject to a strict curfew, which means in the evening he has to leave the library where he’s studying and rush back to his dorm. He goes out with his friends for a bite to eat and discovers the café won’t serve “his kind.” He loses out on a job because of his race. There’s a telling, beautifully written scene in which Gordon visits Manhattan and discovers an openness, an ordinary cultural stew that seems almost shockingly free compared to the casual racial bias and little curtailments of liberty he’s become used to in Seattle. Through it all, Hirabayashi is convinced that the Constitution he had learned to know and love will protect him and his family and friends. After all, they’re Americans, just like anyone else.
Then, on February 19, 1942, comes Executive Order 9066. And things get serious. Ignoring his parents’ plea that he keep his head low and cooperate with the authorities – the hammer hits the nail that sticks out, his father is fond of telling him – Gordon just says no. And it is that simple act that makes him heroic. He has rights, the government is wrong, he will not acquiesce. At first he has high-powered legal help from the ACLU and others; that melts away as various pressures are applied. He spends long stretches in jail, awaiting trial; when he gets to court he doesn’t stand much of a chance. At the same time, the entire legal system seems a bit embarrassed by the whole thing, and not quite sure how to handle it.
Sakata deftly blends little private moments and episodes of wry comedy into her script, and Yu makes some pinpoint switches as he brings an everyday human appeal to the momentous issues at stake: one of the play’s successes is that it so aptly reveals how large cultural ideas are formed by, and have an effect on, flesh-and-blood people. Moments of almost delightful absurdity dot the play: Hirabayashi is ordered to a prison in Arizona, but the government doesn’t have the money to send him so he makes the trip on his own, hitchhiking, doing some camping, stopping along the way to visit his girlfriend’s family. It’s fascinating to watch the ways that Yu subtly adds stature to Gordon’s personality as his battle goes on: by the end, some forty years later, his story has achieved a deep and resonating poignance.
Hold These Truths is Hirabayashi’s story, and the story of Japanese Americans, who experienced these things. Its specifics are their specifics, and it’s important to understand that. Playwright Sakata’s own family spent the war years in a confinement camp, and afterwards almost never talked about it: This play came about partly as her exploration of that cultural legacy. (Read Truths self-evident and the camps, Sakata’s fascinating conversation with ArtsWatch writer Alice Hardesty, whose architect father designed and helped build one of the camps.)
But the story’s implications also ripple wide, and it’s important to understand that, too. What the Constitution says and what the nation does are not always congruent, and sometimes things that have been put into law take decades to be achieved in practical terms. In a way the story of Hirabayashi and the camps is also the story of a nation reluctant to expand into its own self-definitions. The 14th Amendment might have guaranteed citizenship and rights to African Americans, but the actual achievement took far longer, with many legal setbacks and unofficial impingements and anti-miscegenaton laws and separate-but-equal ordinances, and the fight continues with voter suppression laws.
How do we define “we the people”? There traditionally has been a long wait for constitutional guarantees to kick in for “outsider” groups, even original Americans: not every state granted citizenship to Native Americans until 1957. The 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women’s right to vote, wasn’t ratified until 1919. Last year’s Supreme Court decision recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry was based on the provisions of the 14th Amendment, the same one on which Hirabayashi based his legal argument during World War II.
In part, the story of Hold These Truths is the continuing story of the rub between national principles and everyday beliefs. We seem headed into a similar sort of cycle to the one that Japanese American citizens faced during the war, pulling in separate directions, relying on our agreed-upon rules and rights on one hand and bending them on the other to the heat of the moment. And who will our new Gordon Hirabayashis be, the ordinary men and women who in times of trial stubbornly stand up for the long view of what is required and right?
Hold These Truths continues through November 13 in the Ellyn Bye Studio of Portland Center Stage at The Armory. Ticket and schedule information here.