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REVIEW: Dear We Hold These Truths (Guthrie Theater)

Joel de la Fuente in Hold These Truths. Photo by Laura Pates.

From the audience of Dowling Studio on the ninth floor of the Guthrie Theater, Joel de la Fuente begins his slow descent onto a sparsely set stage, where he will hold the audience in rapt attention for the next 90 minutes. Three chairs, a suspended window frame, a suitcase, and a few props speckle the empty space onstage, as the actor floats between the past and the present to excavate a bit of hope from one of this country’s shameful chapters. This is Hold These Truths, a one-person play by Jeanne Sakata: the story of Gordon Hirabayashi, the exclusion order, and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II – and his principled resistance to it.

Joel de la Fuente. Photo by Laura Pates.
Joel de la Fuente. Photo by Laura Pates.

To call de la Fuente’s performance a tour de force would be misleading—although it is surely that. Under the skilled direction of Lisa Rothe, de la Fuente embodies multiple characters as well as Hirabayashi across several decades of his life, creating an impressionistic patchwork that is part theatrical memoir, part meditation on the American dream and the promise of its Constitution. However, the power in de la Fuente’s performance comes from his utter avoidance of any virtuosic, “show-offy” moments that so often puncture extended monologues of this kind in less skilled performers.

What gets captured in de la Fuente’s performance is, to boil it down, Hirabayashi’s essential and unexceptional goodness, regardless of the situation in which he finds himself. De la Fuente is able to capture dignity without pushing it over into self-conscious gravitas, and his unadorned yet wide-ranging interpretation of the different roles underlines this central quality. As a young child, a fresh-faced college student, an aging sociology professor, de la Fuente’s Hirabayashi holds a principled center, and it is that simple insistence on what is right and acting “as if was what should be…is” that makes Sakata’s play so stirring.

In calmer times (socially and politically speaking, that is), it is easy to think of historical representations in art as cautionary tales, as ways of understanding and reckoning with the past and how it has brought us into the present, and of understanding our world and how to move within it to prevent the darker times from returning. Those of us who were not around in the 1950s can read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in high school as a way in to learn about Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the impact might be diminished when removed from the immediacy of the historical context in which the play came about.

For this current run of Hold These Truths, though, during this particular historical moment and the rhetoric surrounding it, the thought of legal internment of American citizens and the failure of institutions to live up to their founding principles does not feel removed. This does not feel like a cautionary tale of how to keep the dark times at bay, so much as an instruction manual for what to do once they have arrived. With the production’s Quaker plainness, de la Fuente’s simple and human portrayal, and Sakata’s blend of historical fact, memory, and fiction, Hold These Truths does not shy away from the inhumanity or injustice of the time, nor the baffling incongruity of the Supreme Court’s original decision in Hirabayashi’s case with the founding principles of this country. Still, though, this play can offer some salve for the weary soul as it portrays the sometimes long, but hopefully inevitable, bend toward justice.

Lydia Lunning