At a moment in our history when American justice and perhaps even our sense of national purpose have eroded from the government's response to an outside threat, "Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi" couldn't be more timely.
Seen at its premiere Wednesday in the East West Players' Hwang Theater downtown, this thoughtful new one-actor play by Jeanne Sakata tells the true story of a Japanese American college student in Seattle who refused to sign himself into the relocation camps established to house everyone of Japanese ancestry during World War II. More than that, he refused to become the Other, the Enemy Alien, in his own eyes or anyone else's.
Born in the U.S., Hirabayashi believed that his rights as a citizen -- starting with the constitutional promise to "establish justice" and secure "the blessings of liberty" -- protected him from a policy clearly founded on reprehensible racial profiling.
He was arrested, tried and found guilty but never lost faith in the Constitution until the Supreme Court caved in and refused to question what was called a military necessity. Documents discovered 40 years later proved that the government had illegally suppressed key evidence at his trial, and his conviction was overturned.
Sakata spends an awful lot of time establishing Hirabayashi as a likable, salt-of-the-earth guy, chronicling his life as if we're in a lecture hall. Director Jessica Kubzansky adopts a simplified, neo-Brechtian approach, filling the platform stage designed by Maiko Nezu with projections evoking the places and ideals described in the text. Jeremy Pivnick designed the lighting.
Ryun Yu plays Hirabayashi at various ages and states of awareness -- as well as every other person Hirabayashi remembers -- but even his fine-grained tour de force doesn't negate the suspicion that another structure, another style might make this material more exciting.
Told with more humor than anger, the play isolates Hirabayashi's principled resistance and, along the way, skirts a few major issues. For instance, the racism before, during and after the war is all the same here -- there's no sense of how a new feeling of national vulnerability fanned the flames of war hysteria and blindsided bedrock constitutional protections.
"Dawn's Light" does its job, but to some extent, recent history undercuts the play's force. Hirabayashi was humiliated by his ordeal but never waterboarded, and his incarceration in Tucson (with celebrity visitors) wasn't the same as lockup in Guantanamo. The ethical issues are the same, the personal consequences radically different.
'Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi'
Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Dec. 2
Price: $30 and $35
Contact: (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes