Now more than ever. That’s how Brookline-born theater director Benny Sato Ambush feels about retelling the story of Gordon Hirabayashi in the Lyric Stage’s production of Jeanne Sakata’s play, “Hold These Truths.”
Hirabayashi, an American born of Japanese immigrants, resisted World War II internment laws that forced around 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent into West Coast camps after the Pearl Harbor strike. Sato Ambush feels this story needs to be heard now.
“This play should be done in every community in the country to generate this civic discussion on who gets to be an American citizen,” says Sato Ambush, who lives in Lynn. Other productions in New York City and Washington, D.C. are already in the works.
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The Lyric Stage’s production stars BU actor school grad Michael Hisamoto (“Stage Kiss”) as Hirabayashi, the Seattle-born sociologist who was imprisoned for his protest, stating that the Constitution and his personal rights were violated. Decades later, he was venerated and his sentence overturned. A few months after Hirabayashi’s death in January 2012, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The production honors Hirabayashi’s Japanese heritage with the addition of elements of traditional Kabuki Theater, something Sato Ambush is keeping under wraps for now.
“Part of me wants people to be surprised when they see it,” says Sato Ambush. “There are surprises in the Kabuki conventions we’re exploring. We want people to come and hear the story and see it performed and be surprised.”
For Sato Ambush, “Hold These Truths” is not about looking back and pointing fingers, it’s a warning and a call to action now.
“When constitutional mandates fall off the radar as the country veers off the rails, every generation needs to steer it back on course,” he says. “We have to keep at it. It’s like a car that needs maintenance. A nation needs maintenance and we have to be vigilant in keeping it running properly.”
However, Hirabayashi’s story is deeply personal to him. His maternal grandfather, Takayuki Yaokawa Sato, was born in Japan and worked on a ship as a cook, eventually finding his way to Cambridge.
“He married my black grandmother, Grace Virginia Sato, and they had five children,” Sato Ambush says. “During World War II, my grandmother lost the right to vote because she had married a Japanese man, even though he was already dead by then.”
“She worked in Cambridge City Hall. Do you know what her job was?” he adds. “Her job was registering people to vote.”
If you go:
Dec. 1-Dec. 31, Lyric Stage, 140 Claredon St., Boston, $35+, lyricstage.com