Entertainment » Theatre

Review: 'Hold These Truths' Celebrates Pacifist Hero

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jun 21, 2021
Jomar Tagatac in "Hold These Truths"
Jomar Tagatac in "Hold These Truths"  (Source:SF Playhouse)

Yes, we're still here.

After 15 months in Limbo, San Francisco theater companies are slowly and fitfully resuming in-person performances, although opening night for SF Playhouse's latest, "Hold These Truths," seated only a handful of vaccinated, socially distanced audience members.

(The show is available to a wider audience via streaming.)

Of course, it's hard not to let the emotions of the occasion color our perception of the play a bit: A year ago, who could be sure that we'd ever see an opening night like this again? Indeed, who's to say that even now the hardest times really are behind us — personally or culturally? 

Point being, it's more difficult to assess a performance fairly and objectively when you're already getting a bit misty just entering the lobby.

Which is why it's lucky that "Hold These Truths" is such a hit, one that will immediately stow all of your personal baggage and drive out any doubts about just how good the material you're watching really is.

In this one-person biographical piece by actor and playwright Jeanne Sakata, Jomar Tagatac — very likely the most sensitive and versatile actor working in the Bay Area today — is Gordon Hirabayashi, a sunny Quaker activist staring down the federal government's World War II-era internment orders.

But this is not a story about Japanese internment. For one thing, as Hirabayashi makes clear, there never was any such thing as Japanese internment: It was the internment of Americans, ones who happened to fall under the wheels of vicious and arbitrary racial animus.

More to the point, Hirabayashi never went to the camps. Instead he went to prison, and then to court in a bid to affirm the truth and dignity of all people under the law. Which, sad to say, is a formula for heartbreak every time.

Tagatac manifests dozens of characters over the course of the show, as indeed he has in many other productions. But this is perhaps the first time any play really grants him a centerpiece role of sufficient scope for his talents, as Tagatac was seemingly born to play parts like Hirabayashi. 

Sakata's simple, honestly beautiful dialogue (synthesized from hours of interviews with the real Hirabayashi) becomes breathlessly compelling in his mouth, and, more than anything, "Hold These Truths" is a joy to listen to.

Actually, both the lead actor and the central character are so earnestly winning that at times it risks undermining the outrageousness of the story. Hirabayashi is a radical, but he's a gentle and pacifistic one who expresses anger in the form of embarrassment and sadness rather than rage. 

At one point, Hirabayashi spends two weeks hitchhiking cross-country in order to deliver himself to prison. This is remarkable, but with our 21st century sensibilities, some audiences may bristle at the idea of a revolutionary so meekly turning the other cheek without so much as raised voices.

In fairness though, the play makes clear many times that Hirabayashi risks his life by even passively resisting, and that anger is a privilege not rationed out to people like him. And director Jeffrey Lo presents the story in such authentic terms that it's hard to doubt this is the way it was meant to be told. 

It's tempting to imagine this is a story that warns us there's nothing really safeguarding the norms we rely on: That the law can say one thing very plainly on paper, but become something entirely inverse in a judge's mouth.

But the real truth of "Hold These Truths" is that there are things protecting us and holding us together: They're simply not the things we're taught to assume, and they demand much more out of us than is fair, and from those who need them the most they extract the most — sometimes all that a person can give.

It's also quite fascinating seeing this show now, at a time when so many people in America appear to be afraid of the basic facts of history. 

In "Hold These Truths," we see that real history is always a subversive element, because it resists the interests of those who would change it for their own ends — or to assuage their regrets.


"Hold These Truths" plays through July 8 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street. For tickets and streaming information, call 415-677-9596 or visit SFPlayhouse.com.

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