(Joel de la Fuente stars in Watsonville native Jeanne Sakata's "Hold These Truths" at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's 2018/2019 season opener. Photo by Lia Chang)
WATSONVILLE — Growing up in Watsonville, actress and playwright Jeanne Sakata only had a vague idea of what had happened to her family during the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Her father, as well as some aunts and uncles, were forced to leave the Pajaro Valley during the internment, eventually ending up at the Poston War Relocation Center in Yuma County, Ariz.
“I knew something had happened to them, but they didn’t want to talk about it,” Sakata said. “And understandably — it was an incredibly traumatic experience. They wanted to bury those memories. It scarred them.”
Once in college, Sakata began discovering more about what happened to her family and the thousands of other Japanese-Americans during the internment. It was then she found out about civil rights pioneer Gordon Hirabayashi after viewing a documentary film entitled “A Personal Matter: Gordon Hirabayashi vs. the United States”.
Hirabayashi, Sakata described, deeply believed in the United States constitution. A child of immigrants from the Nagano prefecture in Japan, Hirabayashi studied at the University of Washington and became heavily involved in the YMCA organization.
So when the country began imprisoning its own citizens for having Japanese ancestry, Hirabayashi saw it as an attack on democracy. He resisted, refusing to follow curfew laws, openly defying internment and eventually taking his fight to the Supreme Court.
Jeanne Sakata. Photo by Lia Chang
Sakata was inspired to tell Hirabayashi’s story. She began working in 1997 on what would become a play entitled “Hold These Truths.” Premiering in 2007 at East West Players in Los Angeles, it had runs throughout the U.S. from New York City to Honolulu.
On July 11, the show will have its Bay Area premier at TheatreWorks Sillicon Valley. Directed by Lisa Rothe and starring New Jersey-based actor Joel de la Fuente, the production will run until Aug. 5.
“Hold These Truths” is a one-person play, demanding de la Fuente to play up to 37 characters in one performance, which Sakata said is not an easy task.
“It definitely takes a lot of skill, and patience,” Sakata laughed. “But Joel has been incredible.”
Many of the themes present in “Hold These Truths,” Sakata said, have become more and more relevant recently.
“What has been happening in this country has scared a lot of Japanese-Americans,” she said. “Crimes against minority groups seem to be increasing again. People in the highest offices are using hateful language against them. It's echoing the past, and it’s shocking.”
This is why Sakata believes the show will resonate with audiences — and hopefully inspire them to fight back.
“Gordon wasn’t born a rebel,” she said. “He learned to be one. He made holding up the constitution a personal matter. He engaged in civil disobedience for all the right reasons.”
Sakata’s own grandfather immigrated from Japan when he was only 15 years old, eventually making his way to Watsonville and becoming involved in the farming industry. The Sakata family owned 50-60 acres of farmland near Riverside Drive. To this day, a street just off Riverside is still named Sakata Lane.
“I have a lot to thank the Watsonville community for,” she said. “Everyone was always so supportive. I feel lucky to have had that.”
“Hold These Truths” will run July 11-Aug. 5 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. For information, visit theatreworks.org.