Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer
In the wake of events such as the Sikh temple shooting in Milwaukee this past week by a white supremacist, the story of United States-run Japanese internment camps from World War II is especially pertinent.
“In many ways, it feels like we are exactly back at that same time. We are just as if not more afraid than we have ever been as a nation,” said Joel de la Fuente.
De la Fuente portrays Gordon Hirabayashi in a one-man play called Hold These Truths, which is based on the true story of a second-generation Japanese-American who refused to enter the internment camps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The play debuts for one night only as part of Chautauqua Theater Company’s Chau-Talk-One series at 7 p.m. tonight in Bratton Theater.
The play was written by Jeanne Sakata and is directed by Lisa Rothe. It will have its New York City premiere in the fall at Epic Theater Ensemble, where Robert Chelimsky, former managing director of CTC, serves as managing director.
“I’m really excited to share this piece with Chautauqua audiences and see what they have to say,” de la Fuente said. “Someone saying they hate your play in Chautauqua is better, nine times out of 10, than someone in New York saying they loved your play … because Chautauquans have taken the work seriously and are looking to engage.”
It is de la Fuente’s second season at Chautauqua. He was a guest artist actor in last year’s New Play Workshop Build and in CTC’s production of Three Sisters.
This time, he returns to Chautauqua to take the stage by himself as Hirabayashi, whose life speaks to a universal truth: the consequences of fear.
“The way Japanese-Americans were treated … calls to mind the treatment of Muslims post-9/11. When people become afraid, we become our lesser selves,” de la Fuente said. “It helps to see one person thought differently and made a difference.”
Upon Hirabayashi’s death this past January, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the highest award that can be given to a civilian.
Becoming Hirabayashi in the show has been a challenging, yet exciting, immersive process for de la Fuente.
“By getting to play someone like Gordon, I’m free to experience something fully that I may normally be afraid to experience. Growing up as an Asian-American man, there are certain things that I have chosen or grown up in a way not fully experiencing,” he said. “It’s an amazing gift to do that while also serving the greater story.”
One of the surprises of the play for de la Fuente is that he did not know who Hirabayashi was when he first received the script, though he had taken many Asian-American studies courses while a student at the Brown/Trinity Consortium and New York University.
De la Fuente studied acting at both schools. It has been his passion since childhood, but he never thought he could be an actor, because he never saw anyone who looked like him on stage. Part of what draws him to theater now — besides his love for storytelling — is representing Asian-Americans on stage.
“It’s important for people to see people that look like me (in the performing arts) next to other people who look differently,” de la Fuente said. “We are all telling this story together and representing this world we live in.”
But this time, he won’t be standing next to anyone on stage. At first, de la Fuente was hesitant about a one-man play, because his favorite part of theater is reactions elicited from one character by another.
“Hanging out with the rest of the cast (in a one-man show), they are very quiet and boring,” he said. “The interesting thing I’ve learned is when you are creating different characters, you treat them like the other people you’re with.”
Within the stage’s controlled environment, he tells a story and hopes to surprise himself with the juxtaposed characters. And to de la Fuente, that surprise will come from playing Hirabayashi, a man much stronger than himself in his beliefs.
“It’s hard enough for me to take a stand over ordering broccoli sometimes in a restaurant, but to actually have beliefs and stand up in a situation when everyone is terrified, and angry, and afraid and frightening you and your family … it helps us all be braver,” he said.