Before Joel de la Fuente would first step onto the set of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle as Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido, he was introduced to Gordon Hirabayashi.
The American son of Japanese immigrants, Hirabayashi’s story of fighting against the forcible removal and mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is told through Jeanne Sakata’s Hold These Truths. The solo biographical play starring de la Fuente gets its Canadian premiere later this month at The Cultch.
“Following his principles led him to challenge the internment, and forty years later, finally being exonerated,” explains de la Fuente. “His challenge that went to the U.S. Supreme Court called a lot of attention to the human rights violations and dubious actions of the U.S. military during a very terrible time. Not just for the United States, but Canada as well.”
From historical obscurity
Written by American actor and playwright Jeanne Sakata, it was a story both she and de la Fuente were not originally familiar with.
“Jeanne is a wonderful actor who became a playwright to tell Gordon’s story,” says de la Fuente. “I think she has a very similar experience in that she also was stunned to hear the story of Gordon.”
While Sakata has a personal connection to the story with members of her family interned during the war, both she and de la Fuente were surprised they had had not heard of Hirabayashi.
“I thought I knew quite a lot about the internment of Japanese Americans from my interest in Asian American studies since college, but the fact that I had never heard about Gordon stunned me,” he says. “And as I learned more about his story, I felt a responsibility to try to help tell it.”
It is a responsibility he shares with the playwright who not only wrote the play as a way to deal with her family’s painful past but to also spread awareness about this forgotten piece of history.
In a Q&A with Sakata found in the program notes for the 2018 Arena Stage production in Washington, D.C., she says Hirabayashi’s story “has been sadly neglected in our history books”.
She goes onto say the importance of Gordon’s legacy continues to “grow more and more urgent to the point where it almost seems like a direct response to what’s happening now in such a frightening political landscape.”
The road to the stage
First introduced to the script in 2009, it would take another three years before de la Fuente would get an opportunity to perform the solo show.
“Jeanne had met some folks in New York who were interested in her as a writer and wanted to workshop her play,” explains de la Fuente. “They introduced her to director Lisa Rothe who I know very well from acting school, and it just really clicked.”
The connection was immediate, with de la Fuente first stepping into the role of Hirabayashi in the 2012 production for New Yorks’ Epic Theatre Ensemble. It would be a performance that would garner him a Drama Desk Award nomination for best solo performance.
Finding the time
A busy television and film actor, de la Fuente would find time to tour with the show between other projects, including his work on the horror series Hemlock Grove and Amazon’s alternate-history series The Man in the High Castle.
“The New York premiere happened at the same time I was working on season one of Hemlock Grove, and the scheduling just really worked out,” he says. “And then over the next few years, when I wasn’t shooting on Hemlock or High Castle, we coordinated with producers and theatres who were interested in doing the play.”
Takeshi versus Gordon
The irony of playing two very different Japenese men, one on stage as the real-life Hirabayashi and the other as the fictional Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido in the Vancouver-shot The Man in the High Castle, is not lost on de la Fuente.
“Gordon is the antithesis of Chief Inspector Kido,” he says. “They’re both very principled people of Japanese ancestry. But Gordon is an American who fought for the constitution, and Kido is someone who believes very strongly in the power of the Empire. So they balanced each other out over the years.”
De la Fuente also found it impossible to separate these two distinct characters fully, each helping to inform the other.
“In Hold These Truths, Gordon is a legitimate American hero, and it was helpful for me to understand his heroism,” he says. “And then to take that and try to translate that in a weird way to how I play Kido.”
The challenge for de la Fuente was how to embody Hirabayashi’s principles in his portrayal of Chief Inspector Kido in High Castle. Conversely, he looked for a way to translate Kido’s steely resolve to portray on stage the man who would eventually go on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “They definitely fed off the other,” he says.
The citizenry of theatre
While a busy shooting schedule keeps many film and television actors away from the stage, de la Fuente found himself compelled to tell Hirabayashi’s story.
“There is an element of citizenry that I believe is attached to the theatre,” he says. “You have to find the relevance as to why you tell a story at a particular time and place. And in this specific time, Gordon’s story gets more and more relevant with every passing year.”
Referring to the United States Constitution as a living document, de la Fuente believes it is only as powerful as it is defined at any given moment.
“That’s why Gordon’s story must be told now because our Constitution is under attack along with our human rights,” he says. “There’s something very affirming about hearing the story of a man who lived through a similar dark period and who was able to make some choices that made a difference.”
The Canadian connection
While Hirabayashi’s story may U.S.-centric, there is also a significant connection to Canada with our country’s dark history of the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the war.
“As someone who has spent a lot of time in Vancouver, I feel a personal desire to want to tell this story to a community that I love and admire so much,” he says. “Also, Gordon lived for many years in Edmonton and getting a chance to bring the show to Canada adds relevance and resonance.”
The first time crossing the border with the show, the actor hopes Canadian audiences will be surprised by the level in which they will be entertained about such a dark topic.
“It’s shockingly funny, and charming, and surprising,” he says. “I’m hoping that people are entertained, while also incidentally learning something. Not in a way that sort of preaches, but in a way that inspires.”
A High Castle postscript
While de la Fuente is on the phone to talk about Hold These Truths, it is all but impossible to ignore the release of The Man in the High Castle‘s fifth season.
Set for release on November 15, those looking for specifics in the show’s final season will have to look elsewhere, though, as de la Fuente is not about to spill the beans.
He does say, however, that after having watched it back himself, he genuinely believes it to be the show’s best season. Calling it exciting and challenging for both the actors and writers, he goes onto say it was satisfying for everyone involved to bring closure to many of its stories.
“I think you’re going to see all of the main characters put in situations they’ve never been in before,” he says. “And we’re very grateful to have had a chance to tell the story and are eager to share it with people who have been really supportive of us over the years.”
Hold These Truths opens at The Cultch’s Historic Theatre (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) on October 18 and continues through November 2. Visit thecultch.com for tickets and information.