Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Hold These Truths
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Jomar Tagatac
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Clichés get to be clichés because there is almost always a kernel of truth at their core. So it is with the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana's famous quote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In this time, then, of markedly increased violence against and discrimination of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, it seems appropriate to revisit the United States' persecution of Japanese-Americans during World War II. San Francisco Playhouse has done this with their production of Jeanne Sakata's Hold These Truths, starring Jomar Tagatac as Gordon Hirabayashi, a conscientious objector who refused the restrictions placed on the issei and nisei (first generation Japanese immigrants and their U.S.-born children, respectively), choosing instead to fight internment through the courts and political activism.

The ever-brilliant Tagatac performs to his usual high standard here, inhabiting not only Hirabayashi, but also his parents, college friends, attorneys, wardens—and every other character in this 110-minute retelling of Hirabayashi's fight for justice. Tagatac displays an easy physicality as he not only shifts from role to role, but as Hirabayashi ages, from a five-year old boy suddenly discovering how different he is perceived by the white people in his community, to an old man finally enjoying a much too late measure of vindication. He's able to show us both tremendous strength and unwavering conviction, yet still touch our hearts with wonderful moments of tender vulnerability.

Hirabayashi was born in Seattle and worked on his family farm (which was stolen from them due to the Alien Land Law, forcing the family to rent back land they had already paid for) before heading to the University of Washington to study sociology. As a Quaker, Kobayashi was a strict pacifist—a challenging position to hold with Hitler on the march in Europe, and even more isolating once Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. When a curfew was instituted for American citizens of Japanese descent (but not for those of German or Italian ancestry), Hirabayashi pulled a Rosa Parks-esque move, deliberately staying out after 8:00 p.m. in order to fight the curfew (and the forthcoming exclusion law that will send Japanese-Americans to internment camps) in court. He turned the Japanese phrase that translates to "the nail that sticks up is the one that will be hit" on its head, choosing to be that provocative nail and forcing the United States to address its inequities.

Hold These Truths tells a fascinating, though rarely told, story of one man's fight against injustice and prejudice, but its impact would be so much greater if playwright Sakata had found a way to tighten the nearly two-hour intermission-less running time. The first hour rockets along, but once we get into the weeds of Hirabayashi's court battles, even an actor with Tagatac's skill set has a hard time keeping audience members from checking their watches.

What Sakata gets right is how she manages to show, rather than tell, what's happening to Hirabayashi (and other Japanese-Americans)—despite the fact that the entire play is Hirabayashi telling his story. It's a bit of a writerly magic trick, and Sakata deserves serious kudos for pulling it off. She shows us how Hirabayashi learned to sublimate his core humanity: "Never, never, never do that again," his mother says when a young Hirabayashi stands up to a white man whom Hirabayashi felt had acted cruelly, and again when he expresses that he is "embarrassed" by his community being placed under curfew. Soon enough, though, his sublimation and embarrassment give way to righteous indignation and he becomes that nail that cries out to be hammered down, and yet refuses to be.

Hold These Truths runs through July 3, 2021, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 3:00 p.m. The show is also available to be streamed. Tickets are $15-$100, available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.