SF Playhouse Reopens with ‘Truths’

One of the first in-door theater productions in a year is a timely reminder of government-sanctioned anti-Asian racism.

Before heading upstairs to the San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Hold These Truths, I got a first-hand glimpse of what the “new normal” looks like, at least in the short term: A sign directs patrons to a mostly-empty room where two Playhouse members greet them with temperature checks, hand sanitizer, and contact-tracing questions. After showing off my new vaccine card, I was given a colorful sticker to let everyone else know that I’d passed the screening.

Upstairs I discovered the bar was closed and devoid of its usual pre-show bustle. A masked Susi Damilano (co-founder and producing director) made the rounds, greeting the first in-person patrons in more than a year and explaining that opening the bar would have required serving food, something they’re not yet prepared to do. Instead, the tables have free mini water bottles and laminated QR codes for downloading the digital-only programs. In the theater proper, all parties (individuals and pairs only) were separated by at least two seats on either side and at least one row behind and in front.

As I took my seat in the theater, it wasn’t lost on me that these life-saving procedures, along with sheltering in place, have been falsely equated to slavery and World War II internment camps; I mulled this over as I waited for the play — which is set against the backdrop of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s shameful Executive Order 9066 — to begin.

Hold These Truths focuses on the late activist Gordon Hirabayashi, as played by Jomar Tagatac. Though Hirabayashi experienced his fair share of micro- and macro-aggressive racism, it seems that none of it shook his loyalty to the country in which he was born. He grows up a God-fearing Christian farm boy in Washington with his Japanese parents, he enrolls at the University of Washington, and he makes friends of all stripes. Most of all, he holds true to the Japanese proverb instilled in him by his parents: “To stay out of trouble, one must be inconspicuous”.

That all serves him well until the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor seems to de-legitimize him and his family’s citizenship overnight. Although Hirabayashi remains almost foolishly optimistic, that hope evaporates as he watches the homes of his parents and his neighbors seized by the very government to which they pay taxes. It’s at this point that Hirabayashi moves from passive compliance to aggressive defender of the rights he and other Japanese-Americans were denied.

Hold These Truths playwright Jeanne Sakata spent countless hours interviewing the real Hirabayashi and those close to him. When the play premiered in 2007 (as Dawn’s Light), it played for audiences now used to Arab and Middle Eastern citizens being racially profiled and attacked in “retaliation” for 9/11. There were no internment camps in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, but anti-Arab racism was so prevalent that the oversimplified description of a “Ground Zero mosque” was enough to inspire coast-to-coast outrage.

This production of Hold These Truths comes to San Francisco two decades removed from 9/11 and 80 years removed from the Japanese bombardment of America’s Pacific Fleet. But while the memories of those infamous days may have faded from the forefront of the American psyche, we now find ourselves in the midst of a new wave of violent anti-Asian sentiment — as fears of COVID-19 have amplified baseline racial animus and an increased public awareness of systemic social inequities have highlighted just how much work our country still has to do in righting the wrongs of the past.

This only adds to the timeliness of the Playhouse’s production, directed with a steady hand by playwright Jeffrey Lo. It doesn’t hurt that Lo has the always-reliable Tagatac at his disposal. The actor — who, incidentally, appeared in the Playhouse’s last live show, Tiny Beautiful Things — finds just the right balance to keep Hirabayashi’s optimism from becoming ignorance. So, too, does he make it feel as if a potential court victory for Hirabayashi is a real possibility; it’s not just that we root for him, it’s that we believe his tenacity in defending what’s right will pay off. That’s in spite of one loss after another setting him back. What’s more, Lo and Tagatac keep the people Hirabayashi encounters grounded, allowing them to be characters instead of caricatures (a frequent solo-show mistake).

Having seen Tagatac perform so many times over the years, one might be taken aback by the sight of the usually-bald actor in a wig. Thankfully, it’s a well-made wig that adds to the production. Similarly, Christopher Fitzer’s spartan wooden set, Heather Kenyon’s lights, and Teddy Hulsker’s projections effectively follow Hirabayashi from the classroom to the courtroom, from the farm to the desert, and even to the Supreme Court.

Some have speculated San Francisco will be the first major U.S. city to reach COVID herd immunity. That remains to be seen. Perhaps even less clear is what it will take for our city and country to overcome the recent rash of anti-Asian hate crimes. It’s a testament to all involved that Hold These Truths gets such a top-notch production, but it’s a shame the events depicted so closely mirror events around us.

Hold These Truths
June 8 – July 3 | $15 – $100
In-person and online

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist, and arts critic. thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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