I’m continuing in my series spotlighting regional theaters across the United States. This time we’re checking in with the San Francisco Playhouse, which returns to in-person performances on June 8, 2021. The first play of the season is Hold These Truths, written by Jeanne Sakata and starring Jomar Tagatac. It focuses on the remarkable story of Gordon Hirabayashi and the experience of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. Director Jeffrey Lo joined me on a Zoom call recently to tell me more about the production. If you’re interested in Lo’s work as a playwright, also check out his upcoming play Writing Fragments Home.
Since we’re both Filipino, I’m curious: what’s your favorite Filipino food?
Growing up, I’ve always had a real soft spot for kare-kare. With the oxtail and everything, it can be an intense food. I cook quite a bit, but that’s something I haven’t learned how to cook yet. In college whenever I’d come home, my mom was always kind enough to make sure she had some of that for me.
More related to the play, name something you enjoy from Japan.
Japanese food is so great. Also, in my free time I play video games. A lot of the Japanese games are some of my favorite ones.
How do you feel that your B.A. in Literary Journalism has helped with your work as a playwright and director?
What’s interesting is I found out in theater all of the things I’ve done have creeped their way into being helpful in the artmaking. In addition to my studies, I worked in campus housing to assist the resident advisors. Organizing programs and helping to be in charge of 80 freshmen every year – not surprising in hindsight – but in terms of producing theater and directing, they became really useful for me [laughs]. I would say I pull from that just as much if not more than my direct theater education.
In terms of literary journalism, you know a lot of times like with Hold These Truths, work that I’ve done is based in some form of history or reality. It is taking journalistic reporting and information collection but presenting a story that feels like fiction. That’s become helpful with the way I approach directing plays that are based in history. [It’s] how we find artful ways to still be based in the truth and present the facts as the script presents to us, but explore ways to present the emotional truth as well.
Is it harder to direct a show with only one actor versus a full cast?
Yes and no. Luckily I’ve worked with the actor, Jomar Tagatac, quite a bit. We have a really wonderful friendship and artistic relationship that makes things a lot easier. In a show with a full cast, you’re able to bounce ideas amongst a lot of people. With a one-person show – I’ve done a number of these – it’s just the two of you to figure it out. But also when you do one-person shows, part of the thrill of the show is that you have one storyteller. It’s an intimate experience as they play all of the characters, do all the voices, and do all of the stuff.
There’s an extra challenge for the actor but in a practical sense, it doesn’t feel as awesome if you’re having crewmembers coming onstage to do things in a solo show. You want the one person to be the only person onstage, which makes it so there is a lot of problem solving for creating scenic changes, painting different pictures, and moving to different parts of the world through very subtle movements and gestures. It’s a little bit harder, but when you have the right collaborator, that’s worthwhile.
What do you feel Jomar Tagatac brings to this role?
Jomar is a stalwart of the Bay Area theater community. Pre-pandemic when everything came to a halt, he’d been working nonstop in the Bay Area in a wonderful way. I think Jomar has a beautiful ability to combine three things that are so crucial to this play. He’s relatable. He is charming, which if you’re going to sit and listen to one person speak for 90 minutes, they have to have a certain amount of charisma. Also, he is able to bring a beautiful weight and gravitas to the serious nature of what we’re talking about.
We spoke to the playwright, Jeanne Sakata, about her experience interviewing the real man, Gordon Hirabayashi. He was so full of energy, charisma, and life! We wanted to bring that to the way Jomar tells the story, because that is how Gordon would tell his story. It’s a balancing act with remembering the trauma that we are talking about in this period of time with World War II for the Japanese American community.
With two options being available, in-person and virtually on-demand, do you have to shift at all in your approach to the different versions?
It’s not necessarily that much of a shift but it’s extra work. The lighting will be different for something on camera than something lit in-person, for example. With COVID protocols, we have a limited crew backstage and with camera people. The cameras are not going to move too much. There may be some slight shifts in movement to make sure we’re able to get camera angles we want for the on-demand version.
In person, you’re trying to fill a bigger space as a performer in an auditorium, because you’re trying to reach all the way to the back row. With cameras, you’ll have more close-ups.
The shifts will be minimal in terms of the artistic aspect of it. We’ll create the show for the live version and then when we go back to record it, we’ll tweak here and there.
What really jumped out at you from the script as you were working through it?
I’ve been familiar with the script for a number of years. The playwright, Jeanne Sakata, is a good friend of mine. I think there’s a real beauty to the story. I find this play to be sort of a love letter to the willpower of American ideas. What I mean by that is: it’s like America’s highest ideals versus the systems that are put in place. Those are different things. I think people like you and I have probably been wrestling with issues of race and systemic inequality for a long time. There are other people [for whom] it hasn’t come to the forefront of their minds in years.
I think this play is a story of triumph about someone who believed in what America represents in its most beautiful way, while acknowledging one of the darkest, tragic, and embarrassing times for the country. This man, Gordon Hirabayashi, separates the systems in place and the people that are in charge from the idea of America: a place where anyone can come and be their best selves. Everyone should and can be accepted. That has always leapt out at me.
What would you say about the play’s message?
Whenever you’re doing a play, you always want to ask the question of why we’re telling the story today. Why today? I think there are a lot of obvious reasons. There’s the past 15 months, a terrible increase in Asian American hate crimes, and the March murders in Atlanta. In addition to that, this piece is about a man who kept fighting for his principles until he won. He wins and he gets the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
To us, we were also answering [the question of] who is he talking to? It’s not just the audience. I’m not interested in the school lecture, so I’m not going to say Gordon is talking about the internment camps. What this play is for and who he is talking to is the contemporary sense of the world and in fighting the way he fought 80 years ago for the ideals of America and ideals of humanity. If he’s speaking to all the people that want to fight for truth and justice and who are tired, we want this story to reenergize them and remind them that this can work.
Is there a lot of pressure in directing a play based on a true story?
There’s a certain amount of responsibility, especially with a piece like this where it’s surrounding an event that caused such trauma and distress for the Japanese American community. We have to do the hardships and the triumph justice. We don’t want to stay only talking about the tragedy and the challenges which are present. We want to celebrate the victory that Gordon has and his tenacity in holding to his principles.
How do you feel about theaters reopening?
I’m excited and nervous about it. The theater company put together some wonderful safety protocols with the vaccinations and getting COVID-tested. I’m going to feel safe. I am thrilled that a story like this one is how we re-enter the theater space. I believe in storytelling. The strongest tool we have for empathy is storytelling and art. It would have been disappointing if we took 15 months away and we came back to do shows that weren’t really speaking to the moment. I’m looking forward to coming back to the theater.