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Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi is a one-man show written by Jeanne Sakata and starring Ryun Yu, that reflects on the man who dared to resist the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
The main cast and crew in the East West Players' production of Dawn's Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi consists of the talents of a small trio: first time writer Jeanne Sakata, performer Ryun Yu, and director Jessica Kubzansky.
Dawn's Light retells the account of the true-life constitutional-defying Gordon Hirabayashi, who in his early twenties was one of three people who refused to be incarcerated when people of Japanese ancestry were forced to leave their homes during World War II. This single action caused him to be convicted of a federal crime, resulting in the 1943 Supreme Court case Hirabayashi v. United States, which he ultimately lost.
Ryun Yu has the task of playing every single character in the play -- which, in addition to Gordon Hirabayashi himself, includes his family members, his friends at school, and a myriad of additional characters that Hirabayashi encounters after refusing the order.
In the weaving timeline of Dawn's Light, an older Hirabayashi reflects on his own past in flashbacks. To writer Jeanne Sakata, Hirabayashi's story embodies the "quiet acts of heroism in our lives that are not [seen as] revolutionary, but are, in a quiet way."
Before Sakata chose to write her play about Gordon Hirabayashi, she had never heard of him. It wasn't until she first watched a PBS special on Hirabayashi's life called A Personal Matter that she was drawn to his story.
"He was a Quaker, and it fascinated me," said Sakata.
According to Sakata, Hirabayashi grew up in a Japanese American family that was not like most. His family was made up of very democratic pacifists who were a part of a Japanese group that rejected the traditional ways. His mother was a fiery Issei, a devout Christian who was the elected vice president of a Japanese association.
"[Gordon] had an amazing curiosity of the world and a wonderful innocence about him," Sakata explains. "And yet he had the clarity of insight to see that this internment was wrong." The idea that someone so young could take a stand during a time of fear was inspiring to her. "Gordon Hirabayashi is for Japanese Americans the Rosa Parks for African Americans, and these are the people in our community that stood up at a time when it cost them a great deal. I want all Americans to know about this man."
In 1993, Sakata's ambition to retell Hirabayashi's story was answered with a single phone call. When Sakata was at Washington University researching the letters that Hirabayashi wrote, a woman who had just interviewed Gordon gave Sakata his contact information.
"He said, ‘I'll be down in the Bay Area, and I need a ride to Glendale. Why don't you give me a ride?'" remembers Sakata. She agreed, and she drove while Hirabayashi talked.
"I was really intrigued how Gordon took the constitution to heart and thought ‘Even though society is saying no to me, I'm going to live as if I am saying yes,'" says Sakata. "I think that sometimes, many of us take the constitution for granted, but Gordon said ‘This is my constitution.'"
It took Sakata ten years to write the play, spending intensive time on research. She interviewed Hirabayashi twice: once was in 1994, and she traveled to Edmonton, Canada in 2005 for the second interview. In 2003, Jeanne Sakata met with acclaimed Singaporean playwright and prominent theater director, Chay Yew, who made the decision to commission the play. "After that, it changed my outlook on it [the play] psychologically, and I knew I had to finish it," said Sakata.
As a participant of the Taper's Asian Theatre Workshop, Sakata remembers presenting her three-and-a-half hour cold script at the Taper's Writing Retreat to an ethnically diverse group of playwrights. The group gave Sakata encouraging comments about her story. She felt like people were experiencing the story like she did, and there was something about Hirabayashi and his story that was universal.
It was also at this retreat that Sakata met actor Ryun Yu. "As a one-person solo show, you don't get any direction; you just plunge in and do it," said Sakata. "Ryun got my script and jumped off the cliff and read it."
Even after going through the casting process at East West Players, which involved director Jessica Kubzansky and East West Players Producing Artistic Director Tim Dang, Sakata said Yu was the best fit for the role because he captured the "intellectual curiosity that Gordon had" and was able to portray the "different qualities that would be right for different characters."
The initial decision to have one sole actor in the entire performance was Sakata's personal decision as a writer. She liked the idea of a one-man show because it's "one man's inner journey in his own heart and mind and soul."
A longtime actress turned playwright, Jeanne Sakata says her transition to writing was a very different kind of experience. She calls acting a physical involvement, where most of the time, you're in a community with people all around. On the other hand, "writing can be very lonely," says Sakata. "You have to take this big rough draft and chisel it down and work on the structure. It's like a tile mosaic… finding the right shape and color. You have to chisel the words that you write so that it flows and it has a dramatic sweep to it." But in the end, Sakata found it empowering to choose a story she really wanted to tell.
The play's title, Dawn's Light, suggests two things that are important for Sakata.
"First is that Gordon's journey is about spiritual enlightenment; he was living in a racist society and accepting the restrictions placed on him in that society; he wasn't really in a place to challenge them," says Sakata. "Second, if [Hirabayashi's] taking a journey, it begins at a dawn of a realization. The word ‘dawn' is in our national anthem; ‘dawn's early light' characterizing what it means to be a true patriot."
Sakata hopes that everyone will learn "to take the constitution more seriously and make it [your] own. [Hirabayashi] was not a rebel; he came to these realizations gradually. He's known as a hero and a kind of person you can relate to."
Click here for more information on East West Players' Dawns Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi.
Date Posted: 11/2/2007