‘Hold These Truths’ tells story of WWII, presents lessons for today

Greg Watanabe plays Gordon Hirabayashi in Perseverance Theater’s production of Hold These Truths. (Photo by Akiko Nishijima Rotch)

“Hold These Truths” is a one-person show that tells the story of Gordon Hirabayashi and his resistance of the forced imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. About 200 Japanese-Americans from Alaska and 880 Unangax people were put in camps during the war. The historical work is playing in Anchorage this week and touches on some very modern themes.

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During the production, actor Greg Watanabe plays every character including the principal, Gordon Hirabayashi. He leaps onto a crate, pretending to take trip up to the top of the Empire State Building.

“I have this feeling like a great weight lifting off of my chest,” the actor says. “Feeling a new surge of endless possibilities. Feeling like… I’ve finally joined the human race.”

Watanabe explained that Hirabayashi grew up in Seattle during the 1920s and 1930s when racism against Japanese-Americans was rampant, and his trip out east was a rare reprieve.

“Anywhere there were Japanese-American communities there was a lot of nativist rhetoric that said ‘these people will never assimilate,'” Watanabe said during an interview. “‘These people are going to destroy our race’, etc, etc. That stuff was happening for decades, before Pearl Harbor happened.”

Watanabe and his director, Leslie Ishii, said the story of the Japanese imprisonment – often called internment – has relevance today, when political leaders are calling for a Muslim registry and Islamophobia is on the rise.

“We see that same kind of nativist language being used about immigrant communities and Muslim and Arab communities,” he said. “I think that for Japanese-Americans we understand that there’s real danger in that.”

Japanese-Americans across the country are speaking out in support of the Muslim- and Arab-American communities and their constitutional rights.

“Hold These Truths” profiles Gordon Hirabayashi and how he fought against the Japanese imprisonment. At first, he thought the government could not forcibly relocate his generation of Japanese-Americans because they were citizens.

But when President Franklin D. Roosevelt handed down Executive Order 9066, it applied to everyone of Japanese ancestry, no matter what their citizenship.

Greg Watanabe plays Gordon Hirabayashi in Perseverance Theater’s production of Hold These Truths. (Photo by Akiko Nishijima Rotch)

Hirabayashi defied both a nightly curfew for Japanese-Americans and the evacuation order. He battled his convictions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court – and lost. Hirabayashi and others served some jail time, then, in the 1980s, “the convictions were vacated, but they didn’t actually say Executive Order 9066 violated their constitutional rights,” Watanabe said.

Director Ishii said it’s a necessary time to present the decade-old play because it serves as a reminder of how history can repeat itself unless different communities begin to unite.

“We can forward the message that this is absolutely unjust and the damage, the trauma that occurs, is deep and takes generations to heal from,” she said.

The Perseverance Theater production of “Hold These Truths” will play in Anchorage through January 15.