If you’re looking for a resistance hero, Arena Stage is now offering the true saga of Gordon Hirabayashi. In the panic after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered a dragnet locking anyone of Japanese descent into internment camps. Hirabayashi, born in the United States and studying at the University of Washington, would not comply.
Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths” has been around since 2007, but you can understand why Arena would revisit Hirabayashi’s history now. Hysteria and wholesale racism — “No Japs” signs were features of the American landscape even before the war broke out — are balanced against the principles of the nation’s founding documents, and the argument made its way to the Supreme Court. Hirabayashi lost, but the government rigged the case. Forty years later the verdict was reversed.
What kind of play is this? “Better than I expected,” someone said leaving Arena’s Kogod Cradle Thursday night, and you can understand the trepidation. Sakata’s one-man show tells a noble tale without creative surprise, a lot like “Becoming Dr. Ruth” directly tells the Ruth Westheimer story at Theater J. Washington is a city of history and museums, and these solo bio-dramas fit right in.
Hirabayashi’s social justice crusade is ultimately galvanizing, though, even if director Jessica Kubzansky’s staging keeps Ryun Yu hustling like an athlete around the empty platform stage with only three chairs as props. When Yu throws a baseball as one character, he dashes to the other side of the stage to catch it as someone else. The hyperactivity can be distracting.
The show quickly feels like a Frank Capra movie, particularly “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Yu projects a Jimmy Stewart aura, playing the young Hirabayashi as an affable Everyman joshing with the “fellas” and saying things like “Jeepers!” The internment policy makes the systemic injustice impossible to ignore, and Hirabayashi becomes a lone citizen fighting government corruption in an increasingly dark saga.
There are a couple great angles to Hirabyashi’s legal odyssey, odd comic twists that illuminate his quirky integrity and the government’s moral and functional incoherence. Yu has a light touch in these scenes, especially when Hirabayashi turns himself in to an Arizona lawman who can’t figure out why anyone would do such a thing.
The gallery Yu portrays ranges from Hirabayashi’s parents (sometimes speaking Japanese) to ACLU lawyers. The script isn’t high art; it’s functional biography. But it’s also a timely reminder. The audience listens closely as a baffled and increasingly bitter Hirabayashi tries to reassure himself that the Constitution really means what it says.
Hold These Truths, by Jeanne Sakata. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Set and lights, Ben Zamora; costume design, Cierra Coan; original costume design, Soojin Lee; sound, John Zalewski. About 100 minutes. Through April 8 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. $40-$111. 202-488-3300 or arenastage.org.