This year, Plays & Players Theatre dedicated its season to "One Voice," or, as artistic director Daniel Student explains, one-person shows "about what it takes for someone to go from a concerned citizen to an active citizen."
The fourth production in this series, Jeanne Sakata's Hold These Truths, confronts the legacy of the so-called internment camps of World War II. Created as a result of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, they were filled with people of Japanese ancestry who were held for the duration of the war.
In the play, which starts previews Thursday, Makoto Hirano plays Gordon Hirabayashi. A Quaker and Nisei (second-generation Japanese American), Hirabayashi put up a nonviolent resistance that carried the fight against Executive Order 9066 - which laid the groundwork for internment - all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hirano, 37, is hardly a newcomer to the Philadelphia theater scene. A Temple graduate, he is a cofounder of Team Sunshine Performance Corp., a "devised physical theater," and also has worked as an independent choreographer, collaborating with Pig Iron Theatre, Nichole Canuso Dance, performer Bill Irwin, and many others. So it's a bit of a surprise to learn that Hold These Truths is, he says, "my first-ever professional play - a.k.a., piece of performance art I did not create from scratch."
While researching the camps for a series of dance-theater pieces, Hirano discovered the story of Hirabayashi and his fellow resisters, but says he had to "work to seek it out." Student says he, too, was woefully undereducated about Japanese internment, and since researching the play and talking with survivors, now uses their terms - not internment camps but concentration camps, not mass removal but mass incarceration. During this period in U.S. history, from 1942-45, roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent living in the United States were forced to sell their homes, businesses, and belongings (often with only 48 hours' notice), and move to overcrowded barracks surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
Hirano is a good fit as Hirabayashi, who died at 93 in 2012, not only because of their shared heritage as Nisei, but also because he doesn't mind challenging the status quo on behalf of Japanese Americans. Last season, when Lantern Theatre produced a feudal Japan-themed version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Hirano responded with an open letter titled, "How to Stage Your Show Without Being Super Racist." In it, he chastised the company for not casting anyone of Asian heritage, and pointed out racially insensitive or just plain culturally incorrect elements dotting the production. (Example: "Don't have Brutus wielding a Chinese war sword while everyone else has a katana [a Japanese sword] and hope nobody notices.")
The letter gained national attention among theater professionals and resulted in Hirano's hosting a respectful YouTube sit-down with Lantern artistic director Charles McMahon, who sheepishly explained his motivations and vowed to do better. The outcome, Hirano says, "is yet to be seen." But he left the conversation believing Lantern "is committed to helping increase the visibility of Asian American artists in Philadelphia via casting and producing Asian American plays."
It's this attitude that Student says best illustrates the connections between Hirano and Hirabayashi. "He and Gordon are similar spirits," Student says. "They are dedicated to their principles to an admirable degree, but are able to do so with humor and grace."
Before college, Hirano served in the Marine Corps. It's a small irony: During World War II, young Japanese American men were allowed to leave the camps only if they volunteered to serve in the U.S. military. But true to form, the lessons Hirano learned defy both cultural resentment and "Oorah" stereotypes. "The greatest effect the Marines had on me," he says, "was to further my understanding of and compassion for other human beings."
Similarly, Student recalls a conversation with playwright Sakata regarding the images on Plays & Players' promotional posters for Hold These Truths: Hirano as Hirabayashi superimposed on text from the U.S. Constitution, fist raised in defiance. Sakata, he says, told him, "Gordon wasn't the man on that poster. He was a man of principles and a scholar of sociology and a Quaker. He was gentle and kind and funny, and his story, because of that, is incredibly joyful and accessible, even in its more painful moments."
The story of Japanese internment on U.S. soil is about to get even more accessible. In October, the musical Allegiance will debut on Broadway. It's the childhood story of George Takei - the actor who played Star Trek's Sulu, whose second act has made him an Internet celebrity and outspoken advocate for LGBT equality. Takei's family was forced to move into a converted horse stable in Los Angeles, and was later sent to camps in Arkansas and northern California.
Again, Hirano is guardedly hopeful about what Allegiance might represent. He jokes, "It depends a little bit on how well the show does."
Still, he adds, "all we can say for sure is that the process of green-lighting that show must say something grand about where we are as a society, I think and hope. Some people think perhaps we're ready for this level of 'entertainment,' and I couldn't agree more - but, hell, I was practically born feeling that way."
Hold These Truths
Through March 1 at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Place.
Tickets: $12-$30. Information: 1-866-811-4111 or www.playsandplayers.org.