Japanese American confinement camps

Truth to tell: American wrongs and rights

Portland Center Stage's "Hold These Truths" spins a fascinating real-life tale of World War II incarceration camps and a Japanese American hero

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.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in "Hold These Truths." Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in “Hold These Truths.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

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.”


Truths self-evident and the camps

The daughter of a man who built a WWII confinement camp talks with the writer of a play about a Japanese American hero of the fight against incarceration


Hold These Truths is a drama for our time. Set amid the turmoil of America’s entry into World War II, Jeanne Sakata’s one-actor show is about the struggles of the civil rights hero Gordon Hirabayashi, a young student at the University of Washington, to reconcile his passionate belief in the U.S. constitution with the infamous betrayal of Japanese Americans during the war hysteria after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sakata’s play – which comes, she says, at a time when racism and anti-immigrant hysteria are again on the rise in America – begin previews on Sunday and opens Friday, October 8, in the downstairs Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage. It stars Ryun Yu, who also played the role a year ago at Seattle’s ACT Theatre and in its 2007 world premiere at East West Players in Los Angeles, both times directed by Jessica Kubzansky, who also directs in Portland. Hold These Truths debuts Center Stage’s Northwest Stories series, which will continue with three more shows this season: The Oregon Trail, by Bekah Brunstetter; Astoria: Part 1, Chris Coleman’s new adaptation of Peter Stark’s book; and Wild and Reckless, a new show from the musical group Blitzen Trapper.

Jeanne Sakata, whose first name is pronounced “Jeannie,” is also an accomplished actor who received accolades several years ago for her performances at Portland Center Stage in David Henry Hwang’s M Butterfly and Chay Yew’s Red. She went on to star in a variety of plays all over the world, as well as film and TV shows. She has been called a “local treasure” by the L.A. Times.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in ACT Theatre's 2015 Seattle production of "Hold These Truths." He repeats the role in Portland. Photo: Chris Bennion

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in ACT Theatre’s 2015 Seattle production of “Hold These Truths.” He repeats the role in Portland. Photo: Chris Bennion

Knowing that Jeanne was Japanese-American, I requested an interview. I had good reason.


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