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American state and federal government did some truly evil, indefensible things in the 20th century. Forced sterilizations, helping overthrow democratically elected foreign leaders, the Tuskegee Experiment, the Red Scare — it was a checkered hundred years. But few if any of our sins compare to the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, a systematic revocation of the constitutional rights of tens of thousands of people.

Hold These Truths, running until April 8 at Arena Stage, is a vigorous, inside-out examination of this travesty. A one-man show starring Ryan Yu, it reminds us that one of the worst parts of this mass enslavement (indeed, of all of the above), is that it was not some careless aberration — it happened with the blessing of the judiciary and the military, and the cold-eyed indifference of our elected leaders.

Yu plays many roles, but mostly Gordon Hirabayashi, a real-life American-born son of Japanese parents, who was a student at the University of Washington when the attack on Pearl Harbor changed his life forever. The tragedy of justice — and legal system comedy of errors — that follows falls somewhere between Catch 22 and Triumph of the Spirit. Hirabayashi challenges the flagrantly illegal government orders, first a curfew and then the camp registration. He’s arrested, and various groups rally around and against him (the ACLU proves shamefully flaky). In one particularly amusing sidebar, our hero has to hitchhike 1,600 miles to his own prison sentence. It isn’t until his case reaches the Supreme Court and is struck down with crushing unanimity in Hirabayashi v. United States that his faith in his homeland truly begins to crumble. But of course, the story doesn’t end there.

The U.S. history lessons continue at Arena Stage this year. First, there was the Trail of Tears in January’s Sovereignty; still going through March 11 is the LBJ drama The Great Society. And Hold These Truths, written by Jeanne Sakata and directed by Jessica Kubzansky, feels just as essential as either of those.

I’d say it’s cruel to make one man talk for 90 minutes without so much as a glass of water, but Yu has been playing Hirabayashi for more than 10 years, since back when this play was called Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi. So he knows what he’s about. The actor does a fine job — even alone, he’s never over-the-top — but he has here been woefully over-blocked. It’s as if Kubzansky didn’t trust us to pay attention to a man who’s standing still, so he’s forever climbing, leaping, pointing. Most ridiculous is when he plays both sides of a game of catch.

Lighting and set designer Ben Zamora has conjured a wonderful backdrop. The wall of color and light behind Yu is constantly shifting — now a cold prison cell, now a blazing Western sunset. A rectangular frame surrounded by a recessed glow, it resembles a Mark Rothko screensaver. It’s a lovely background for a compelling story.

Feature photo of Ryun Yu by Patrick Weishampel for Portland Center Stage from Arena Stage

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