Skip to main content

San Diego Rep Play Tells True Story Of Man Who Refused To Be Interned

Cover image for podcast episode

A play at the San Diego Repertory Theatre tells the story of Gordon Hirabayashi, an American citizen of Japanese descent who refused to enter an internment camp during World War II — firm in the belief that his rights as a citizen should be protected.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 Does America really mean what it says in the constitution? That's the question that started one man on a journey that defied the federal government and ended with a posthumous presidential medal of freedom. Gordon Hirabayashi of Japanese descent refused to enter an interment camp during world war II from in the belief that his rights at us as citizens should be protected. The story of his struggle is told in the one man play. Hold these truths. Now playing at the San Diego rep and joining me is playwright Jeannie Sakata. Gini, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for having me and actor Ryan. You welcome Ryan. Thank you so much. Now Jeannie, this story of Japanese Americans in turn during world war two has been told before, most recently in the musical allegiance, which premiered here in San Diego. But the story you tell is about one man who said no. Why did Gordon Hirabayashi refuse?

Speaker 2: 00:59 Gordon grew up in an environment where he knew that the promises of the constitution were not being fulfilled in his day to day life because of the racism and hostilities that were being practiced against people of not just Japanese ancestry, but of Asian ancestry as he was growing up. And yet the promises of the constitution meant a great deal to Gordon. He took them to heart very personally, and when the orders for an unjust racially based curfew and the forced removal of all people of Japanese ancestry on the West coast came up. He did not intend to fight these orders at first, but he just came to a realization that if he were to stand on the promises of the constitution and as a true Patriot, even at that young age, further the realization of those promises, he had to take a stand against those racist orders and against a lot of criticism and against a lot of resistance. He did that.

Speaker 1: 02:03 Now he also refused to obey a curfew imposed on a Japanese Americans and Ryan, I know there, there's a part in the play hold these truths where Gordon addresses that.

Speaker 3: 02:14 Yeah, yeah. Um, so I'll do that, that piece now. But Marina, I gonna ask you to help me out when I point at you, I'd like you to make a sound like a bell tolling, like a kind of clock tower kind of bong bong. Okay. I will do that. Okay, excellent. Um, yeah, so this happens right after the curfew was announced, which said that, um, all enemy aliens as well as non aliens of Japanese descent, which was a euphemism referring to Japanese Americans had to be endorsed at APM and Gordon was a college student then. And um, so every night at 8:00 PM he had to pack up his bags and leave the library five day shoot, uh, dash out into the pouring rain down the steps across the courtyard. If I run, I'll just make it past the fountain and the flag pole with the flag drooping in the, the flag. Then this question hits me, why the hell am I running back? I was born here. I was raised here. I'm an American citizen and some of my dorm mates, I mean

Speaker 4: 03:17 Jose's from the Philippines. Frank's British, Wang's Chinese and they're still at the library. Here I am scrambling like the Dickens to get back to the Gordy. Some guys from Phi Kappa Phi. Hey Gordy, eight o'clock time to go. Betty, bye Gore. Snap out of a crime in a your death.

Speaker 3: 03:38 See you later, Phyllis. I had back to the library, back to the courtyard, up the steps down the corridor to the left, opened the door. 11 heads pop up. Gaudy gold. What the hell are you doing? What are you doing Holly here now? What are you doing? Oh, we're studying it.

Speaker 5: 04:06 Yeah, well

Speaker 1: 04:09 I am too. That's actually Ryan, you portraying Gordon Hirabayashi in the play. Hold these truths. You just gave us a reading from that and thank you so much for that. Now Ryan, you as you obviously played Gordon, how would you describe him as a person?

Speaker 3: 04:27 To me, he's an American hero. He's a guy who did what he did out of principles and heart, but also he was so young and we all of us think we want to be the guy who when the bad stuff happens in our lives, we'll be the person who stand up and say no, would fight against it. Who would, you know, refuse to, you know, be moved to the back of the bus. We want to be that person. And you've just realized and seeing this and seeing the, the video and pictures from the time, just how hard that was. There's this picture of all these Japanese Americans moving across a bridge going towards M and a assembly center in Bainbridge Island. One of the first places where all the Japanese Americans were starting to be put away into camps. And um, you can see there's this flood of people, they're all moving down. There's this kind of FBI agent leaning on the side, casually watching them. And you can see how hard it would be to stop in the middle of that bridge to turn around against this tide of people and have the federal agents come in and get you. I mean, it's just the pressure was so enormous and to be able to, to say no at 24 and to keep that fight up going for the next 40 years is a feat, a monumental fee.

Speaker 1: 05:30 Now, Jeannie, after Gordon said no, his case made it all the way up to the U S Supreme court. That did not go well for him, did it?

Speaker 2: 05:38 It did not. There was a unanimous ruling against him as a matter of fact, which was hugely disappointing to a young idealistic student who actually believed in the Supreme court, believed that they would vindicate him even though the lower courts had convicted him.

Speaker 1: 05:54 How did Gordon react, Jeannie, to the turnaround this subject

Speaker 2: 05:57 40 years later when president Reagan apologized for the policy of internment? Well, when I spoke with Gordon, I think he said something that was quite profound. He said that his case, what happened to him in the 1940s and then in the 1980s when he was vindicated after 40 years showed the worst of America and the best of America. And I think that, I know that, uh, Gordon was very relieved of course, to have that decades-old conviction lifted from his life. And at the same time I've heard from people that knew him then that he was also disappointed that his case didn't actually go to the Supreme court again because he would have loved to have been then vindicated at the Supreme court level. But I think for many people in the Japanese American community who saw Gordon as represented representative of all of them, and for Gordon's family and his community and himself, it was a day of great victory. And also for the attorneys, the third generation sons, the attorneys who were my age, who fought a five year pro bono battle to vacate his criminal conviction. Ryan, you've starred in this show a number of times now. How do you think the relevance of this play has changed over the years?

Speaker 3: 07:18 In shocking ways. Jenny and Jessica, the director and I, when we started this plan, 2007 people would come up after and say, this is a nice history play, but it'll never happen. You know, this is, it was nice for you to bring it up. So it felt like a a little bit, they felt like something safe. A bit of a dusty Relic and we were performing this play in October when the election, the last presidential elections happened. I walked out of the performance to 27 text messages and an a different world and things that before in this play had elicited a response now elicited gasps, things. There've been vocal responses from the audience because it's screamingly relevant now that he says, you know, one line in the play, you know, ancestry is not a crime. And I never in a million years thought if you would have to say that in today's America, but he was prescient.

Speaker 3: 08:09 I, there was an interview when he was coming back for the, when they reopened the case in the 80s and they, they asked him, um, you know, why are you doing this again? A lot of people in the community don't want these wounds brought up again. And he said, I'm doing this, we're doing this. So that it will never happen again to any other group of people. And I saw this interview before the world had changed and, and you know, to me I was, Oh, that's a very nice sentence, but I didn't realize just how pressing it was.

Speaker 2: 08:34 Jeanie, as you say, it's more relevant now to if for the same reasons. Yes. I think that we could not have predicted that as the years went on from 2007 when we first premiered this play, that each year it would be more immediately relevant to what's going on in our country. Now, you know, with each year we've seen increasing racism and hostility towards people of color and their communities until we've reached today where the administration now is terrifyingly resurrecting hate language in a very effective way against people who are not white, not white Americans, against people who in the LGBTQ community against women, against people at the border. And we feel this very powerfully because being in San Diego and with hate crimes on the rise in areas where Trump has his rallies. So this is become terrifyingly relevant to our situation today. And I think that even the fact that Japanese Americans who are survivors of the camps, um, have been demonstrating against whether it's going on in the detention camps at the border, shows you that this is a story that is really timeless. You know, these racist forces have not gone away. If anything, they're stronger than they happen in many years.

Speaker 1: 09:58 The play hold these truths runs at the San Diego reps Lyceum space through December 8th and I've been speaking with playwright Jeannie Sakata and actor Ryan. You thank you both very much. Thank you. Thank you.

KPBS Midday Edition Segments podcast branding

KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.