Joel de la Fuente grateful to retell the story of an unknown American hero

Actor Joel de la Fuente says Hold These Truths remains to be relevant and necessary today because of its theme about patriotism and the fight for freedom. De la Fuente, who gained fame in the Amazon Studio-produced Emmy-winning series “The Man in the High Castle” believes all Americans should know the story of Gordon Hirabayashi. | Photo by Kevin Berne

JOEL de la Fuente made noise and created quite a following in the Emmy-winning series “The Man in the High Castle,” one of Amazon Studios’ most watched original series. But his introduction to more Filipinos globally is through his controversial multi episode arc in the CBS drama “Madam Secretary,” where he played the role of Datu Andrada, a fictional Philippine president. 

But more on that later.

A couple of years ago, he made his TheatreWorks debut for the play Hold These Truths and essayed the role of Gordon Hirabayashi, and his 50-year journey from a Japanese American student who fought internment to a relocation camp during World War II all the way to the Supreme Court, and eventually to a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Calling the character he played “a quintessential American hero” and performing in the Bay Area “a very special experience,” de la Fuente shared a few of the memorable moments he had while doing the play and why the story continues to be relevant and necessary in today’s world.

“We think all Americans should know his story, so any time we get the opportunity to tell Gordon’s story to a new audience, we could not be more grateful,” de la Fuente told the Asian Journal in an email interview.

Photo by Kevin Berne

“There is such a large Japanese American community there [in the Bay Area], and I felt honored to serve the play in front of them. The whole subscriber base at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley was incredibly supportive, and the Artistic Staff could not have made us feel more at home.  It was a really warm, memorable time there,” he added.

Hold These Truths, the award-winning play by playwright Jeanne Sakata, tells the true story of a Japanese American who passionately defends his Constitutional rights against an unexpected adversary: his own country.

Realizing that the theme is as timely as ever, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is offering streaming for the play now through November 3 as part of their online initiative Voices of Democracy which encourages audiences to “get out the vote” and stand up for racial justice.

De la Fuente shared that he recently saw a documentary that interviewed young kids in Hiroshima and that the majority of them did not know that an atomic bomb had been dropped on their city.

“A recent survey reported by NBC News found that 63% of those surveyed did not know 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.  And today, the administration of the United States is separating families at the border, inciting fear and violence over perceived difference because of one’s skin color,” he said.

Indeed, the inspiring story of Hirabayashi happened decades ago yet the theme still resonates to this day making it more important for the younger generation to learn about what happened in the past.

“We must continue to tell these stories, because otherwise we are at great risk of repeating them.  It is sad to say, but the play has never been more relevant.  It speaks not just of the past, but very much of our present,” De la Fuente emphasized.

Aside from the Bay Area, De La Fuente performed the show at leading theatres across the country in New York, Honolulu, Seattle, and Minneapolis and a set of benefit performances in Vancouver.

Critics lauded the play as a show which “gives hope that the arc of the moral universe does indeed eventually bend toward justice” (Los Angeles Times). Bay Area audiences and critics alike admired TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s 2018 production, hailing Joel de la Fuente’s performance as “flawlessly focused and dazzlingly versatile” (The Mercury News) and deeming Hold These Truths “a rallying cry for our own times” (San Francisco Chronicle).

The hit production of Hold These Truths is directed by Lisa Rothe, Hold These Truths is available to stream on-demand until November 3, 2020. | Photo by Kevin Berne

De la Fuente was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for “Best Solo Performance” for his role in this one-man show, which also saw him portray more than thirty characters under the direction of Lisa Rothe.

Controversial

We also had to ask him about his stint as President Andrada on “Madam Secretary,” a show about fictional Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, played by actress Tea Leoni.

“It was actually quite fun,” he said. “I was honored to be a part of the “Madam Secretary” family, if only for a brief time.”

The episodes aired on CBS in 2017 and tackled the issue of some people in power who are taking advantage of women. In one of the episodes, Leoni’s character McCord punched Andrada for making sexually suggestive moves during a private meeting.

“There was quite a hullaballoo when the fictional President Andrada first appeared on “Madam Secretary,” but the truth is, the character was based more on another particular president than the President of the Philippines,” De la Fuente revealed.

The Philippine Embassy in Washington strongly protested and said that the “highly negative” portrayal “not only casts doubt on the respectability of the office of the Philippine president but also denigrates the way our nation navigates foreign affairs” and “tarnishes the Philippines’ long-standing advocacy for women’s rights and gender equality.”

“The show was taking on very serious issues in the wake of the #MeToo Movement, and they were able to do so via this big, over-the-top character,” he added. “The crazy thing is, he’s not nearly as over-the-top as some of our real life leaders these days.”

De la Fuente has been featured in many films and series including the Netflix supernatural series “Hemlock Grove,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Manifest,” “Hawaii 5-O,” “ER,” Red Sparrow, The Adjustment Bureau, among others. He has also performed throughout the United States at theatres including New York Shakespeare Festival, La Jolla Playhouse, The Public Theater, and others.

As a writer, his essay on his experiences as an Asian American actor was published in Pyong Gap Min’s “Struggle for Ethnic Identity,” which has become a staple in Asian American studies programs all over the country. He also co-wrote “Life Document 2: Identity,” which won the Columbia Students Award for Best Film in 2002.

An alumnus of Brown University and the Graduate Acting Program at N.Y.U., De la Fuente lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife, his two daughters, and their dogs, Luna and Yuki.

Like many of his colleagues working as artists and performers, De la Fuente is
affected by the global pandemic, which has also disproportionately hurt communities of color.

“We face unique challenges in the entertainment industry, because our work depends on the collaboration of so many. From companies of actors, to film and television crews, to audiences, show business is dependent on gathering,” he shared. “We are having to find new, safe ways to do that during these times.”

He has used his social media accounts to promote the issues he believes in, including voting this November, wearing masks and banding together to defeat COVID-19, supporting local businesses and stopping the spread of racism.

[Closed captions for the show are available in English and Japanese. To purchase streaming access to Hold These Truths (sliding scale of $10-$100) the public may visit TheatreWorks.org or call (650) 463-1960.]

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