For a host of reasons large and small, “Hold These Truths’’ is a valuable contribution to the 2017/2018 theater season as the season reaches its midpoint.
Topping the list is the fact that Jeanne Sakata’s drama — based on the true story of a Japanese-American dissident named Gordon Hirabayashi and directed at Lyric Stage Company of Boston by Benny Sato Ambush — shines an illuminating and searing light on one of the most shameful chapters in US history: the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
That’s an important story to hear at any time, but perhaps especially now, when there are disturbing signs that the age-old reflex toward scapegoating during periods of national anxiety is now being manifested toward Latinos and Muslim-Americans. Moreover, the experiences of Asian-Americans remain chronically under-represented on the American stage.
A collateral benefit of “Hold These Truths’’ is the showcase the play affords to a talented young actor, Michael Hisamoto. Anyone who admired Hisamoto for his adroit work at Lyric Stage in Sarah Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss’’ now gets to see what he can do with a challenging role that is commensurate with abilities he could only hint at in earlier performances.
The short answer is: a lot. The actor immerses himself in the character of Hirabayashi, delivering a subtly textured portrayal that conveys a vivid sense of the personality, as well as the fervent idealism, of a man who was willing to sacrifice his freedom for a cause. In addition, Hisamoto shoulders the dialogue of several other characters whose physical presence is embodied by three silent performers (Khloe Alice Lin, Gary Thomas Ng, and Samantha Richert) in white masks. Their stylized, wordless movements, inspired by traditional Japanese theater, create a dreamlike aura.
But “Hold These Truths’’ is anchored in a historical reality whose rank injustice still boggles the mind more than seven decades later. In 1942, with the United States at war against Japan following the attack at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that eventually led to the forcible relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans in camps around the country. Suddenly, Hirabayashi notes in “Hold These Truths,’’ “Our faces are the faces of the enemy.’’
A college student when the internment order was issued, Hirabayashi decided to fight it, refusing to register at a processing center and arguing that the order was a violation of his constitutional rights. He would ultimately take his battle all the way to the US Supreme Court. Hirabayashi served a three-month prison term in a work camp, and later spent a year in federal prison for refusing induction into the armed services, asserting that a requirement that Japanese-Americans renounce allegiance to the emperor of Japan was racially discriminatory because members of other ethnic groups faced no such demands.
The ever-present risk for historical-biographical dramas is that their earnestness will tip over into turgidity. “Hold These Truths’’ does occasionally belabor its points, as in a scene when Hisamoto’s Hirabayashi picks up a civics textbook and reads the preamble to the Constitution immediately after seeing a notice that “Everyone with one-sixteenth Japanese blood MUST GO.’’
But the play is studded with details that lodge themselves in the conscience: of his father burning photos and family treasures, “anything suggesting ties to Japan,’’ as the family dazedly complies with the expulsion order; of the chilling sight of barbed wire surrounding the fairgrounds where evacuees were moved into horse stalls; and the way the crisis of war lit the fuse of anti-Japanese prejudice that had been simmering for years and it became clear that yes, it can happen here.
HOLD THESE TRUTHS
Play by Jeanne Sakata. Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. Choreography by Jubilith Moore. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through Dec. 31. Tickets: From $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com