Horrors of WWII’s Japanese internment camps revealed in ‘Hold These Truths’ at People’s Light

Hold These Truths, 2020 / People’s Light
Steven Eng in ‘Hold These Truths’ at People’s Light.
People’s Light

Not every anniversary is a happy one.

February 2022 marked 80 years since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law Executive Order 9066, one authorizing the mass incarceration of people of Japanese descent in the United States after the attacks on Pearl Harbor brought America face first into World War II.

A teen-aged University of Washington student and practicing Quaker, Gordon Hirabayashi, saw, first-hand, how Japanese-Americans were interned, leaving him to reconcile his love for the U.S. Constitution with that same government’s orders to forcibly remove some 120,000+ people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast from their homes, and imprison them.

Playwright Jeanne Sakata and actor Steven Eng speak to the shame, horror and ultimate hope of  internment, Hirabayashi’s resistance and subsequent Supreme Court civil rights case in the freshly-scribed one-man show, ‘Hold These Truths’, on stage from April 6 to May 1 at People’s Light in Malvern.

Originally intended for its opening in March 2020, ‘Hold These Truths’, like all live theater and concerts, was smacked down by the pandemic.

“We were in tech rehearsals at People’s Light when COVID hit,” says Eng during an interview with Metro following last week’s tech and dress rehearsals. “This will finally be out time to shine before live audiences.”

People’s Light

Eng speaks to the truths of Gordon Hirabayashi, his Japanese parents proud to live and work in America, the embrace of his identity as a United States citizen, and the future he had planned with a career in academics headed for multiple degrees in sociology. “This was also a time when racism was more overt and accepted,” says Eng. “It is what Gordon grew up around.”

What Hirabayashi didn’t expect was the harsh and immediate criminalization of merely being Japanese in America. “Growing up in a rural town, when he got to undergraduate school college in an open environment is when he first witnessed injustices first hand, as an American citizen of Japanese ancestry,” states Eng of his character.

When the internment hit, Hirabayashi was in school, already developing this political awareness, and he was devastated by the injustice of early curfews and evacuation orders. And he fought back, breaking the curfews and refusing to be evacuated. “He was one of the first and very few to even attempt this,” says Eng of Hirabayashi defying his government’s mandates. He went to court again and again until he got to the Supreme Court. This journey of experience, his experience is the center piece of this story.”

Humanity, the human voice not being silent in the face of racism—this is the centrifugal force that drives ‘Hold These Truths’ for the playwright and actor.

“Especially since I grew up under very similar circumstances,” says Eng, talking about being born a child of immigrants in a diverse community in the United States. “When I went to college, the first generation to do so in my family, I too felt the sting of racism,” he says. “I identify with the qualities of Jeanne’s script the humanity the serious issues, the essential of what it means to be and live as a citizen of the United States.”

Hirabayashi was eventually and posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2012 for his works regarding civil rights and the struggles against all forms of racism. But, for all of the medals awarded the real-life center of this ‘Hold These Truths’, the actor portraying the doctor, Eng, isn’t blind to how America shows its hand when it comes to its continued bigotry.

“I think our production of ‘Hold These Truths’ is more-timely now than it ever was,” says the actor. “What we try to achieve with this play is to show how so-called great decisions impact people; not just people of one ethnicity, or race or gender, but how we all have a role in government – and how that role is essential in creative a society that is just for all of its members. In the last two years, the need for ‘Hold These Truths’ has become more relevant and more clear.”