Jeanne Sakata photo by Lia Chang

San Francisco Playhouse to Open For Live Performances in June: Exclusive Interview with Jeanne Sakata

San Francisco Playhouse has announced that it will stage “in-person performances” as early as June 8, 2021 while the company is expanding its health and safety protocols for audiences to return to the intimate Union Square theatre.

Making its local debut is “Hold These Truths” by Jeanne Sakata Directed by Jeffrey Lo Starring Jomar Tagatac.

The move comes after more than a year of video productions during the COVID-19 pandemic and marks the company’s foray into a hybrid in-person and digital video presentation, with the show also available as an on-demand video stream for audiences to enjoy at home.

“Our trailblazing season will continue with perhaps our biggest challenge yet,” said Bill English, Artistic Director. “But this is what we do. It will take the tireless work of many artists, artisans, and staff members to get this production off the ground in a creative, safe, and innovative way—and it will all be worth it when we can once again share the sacred space of theatre with our audience.”

Last October, the company was one of the first in the nation to obtain permission from Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union representing actors and stage managers, to film its performances live on stage in front of cameras.

After six filmed productions—all presented as online video streams—“Hold These Truths” will be the first Playhouse show to follow the company’s planned hybrid model that combines in-person audiences with online video access.

The company plans to stage two more hybrid productions in Summer 2021 before beginning its 2021/22 Season.

Ms. Sakata shares some fresh insights on her work and this production in this exclusive interview:

Cultural Currents: What makes this San Francisco premier special for you?

Jeanne Sakata: I was born and raised in Watsonville, California, two hours south of San Francisco. Up until I was eight years old, my Japanese American farming family lived in the outskirts of town near the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, right smack dab in the middle of my grandfather and father’s iceberg lettuce fields.  Being from a rural area, any time we’d come to The City, as we called it, always meant a special family occasion or adventure to some exciting place — the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, the old Candlestick Park, Golden Gate Park, Chinatown, Japantown, Fisherman’s Wharf — all the old traditional landmarks.  The city is just full of treasured childhood memories for me. My late cousin Sandra Sakata used to own a renowned fashion boutique on Sutter and Jones called Obiko, and I still have family members who live in or around the area. In addition, my Issei grandparents, “Harry” Kyusaburo Sakata and Tomiye Ishida Sakata, and Frank and Tei Yamada, all immigrated to America by way of San Francisco.  So having a SF premiere really feels like a full circle family moment.

CC: Why is the San Francisco Playhouse the ideal venue for this show?

Sakata: San Francisco is home to such a vast number of Asian Americans, and has played such a rich and vital role in both Japanese American and Asian American history, culture, and political/social movements. The late Dr. James Hirabayashi, Gordon Hirabayashi’s younger brother, was the first Dean of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State.  It was here in the Bay Area that Dale Minami, Peter Irons, Don Tamaki, Dennis Hayashi, Lori Bannai and other attorneys formed the nucleus of the legal teams who would battle the WWII Supreme Court rulings upholding the criminal convictions of Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu, and Min Yasui.  San Francisco is also the home of the Korematsu Institute, which so powerfully carries on the work born from Fred’s resistance and legacy.  Its central role in Japanese American and Asian American history makes our upcoming production of HOLD THESE TRUTHS all the more special.

CC: How do you expect San Francisco audiences to react to this story?

Sakata: It’s always hard to predict an audience’s responses, and there are always surprises!  But we had a production of HOLD THESE TRUTHS in Palo Alto at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley a couple of years ago, and the audience response was profound and powerful. I think it was because so many Bay Area people who came to see the show actually had direct personal experience with the WWII Japanese American prison camp tragedy—either they were camp survivors themselves, or had family members or close friends who had been prisoners in the camps, often for years.  So I’m hoping we will have the same kind of response here, and that our SF audiences will experience Gordon’s story in a similarly powerful way.

 CC: Is there anything especially timely about staging the play as the pandemic recedes?

Sakata: As we emerge from the worst ravages of the pandemic, we have witnessed Asian hate crimes rise to terrifying heights, as Asian Americans once again have been made scapegoats for a national tragedy.  Tragically, it harkens back to the WWII days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when anyone with Japanese ancestry suddenly became “the enemy.”  So I hope Gordon Hirabayashi’s story of courageous resistance to the racist forces of his time will only deepen our understanding and determination in fighting the racism of our current times.

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