Trying play at Theatre Artists Studio

Many items may fill an attorney’s bucket list, but having a compelling play written about them and their work? Unlikely. Law practice may be many things, but most of its dramas are small, interior, and unsung.

Exceptions exist, of course, and Theatre Artists Studio of Scottsdale – a member organization of actors, playwrights, directors, producers and designers – seems to have found one in the life of Francis Biddle.

If his name rings no bells – it did not for me – that’s a shame, for his contributions were great. He served as the U.S. Solicitor General in 1940 and soon was appointed the Attorney General in 1941. He served in that role through the tumultuous years of World War II.

Following the war, President Truman appointed Biddle as a judge at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremburg – where former Nazi officers and others were tried for genocide and crimes against humanity.

trying play francis biddle

Francis Biddle

Those posts, alone, make Biddle an important part of U.S. and world history. But they may not necessarily yield great theatre. Fortunately, there’s more to the story.

That story comes to us from playwright Joanna McClelland Glass, who relates her own life’s tale of being the personal secretary to an aging Biddle. “Trying” to write his autobiography, Biddle fears he will be unable to complete the work before his impending death. Along the way, the “brilliant and irascible” man makes life challenging – trying – for his young secretary, only recently arrived from the plains of Saskatchewan. The play promises to let audiences watch the two as they are trying to complete his memoir and to understand each other.

Actors Alan Austin and Vanessa Benjamin in

Actors Alan Austin and Vanessa Benjamin in “Trying,” Theatre Artists Studio

Biddle was accomplished as an attorney, judge and author of numerous books. But his renown comes mainly from his work as the Chief Judge at Nuremberg, and for his prior response to the incarceration of Japanese Americans – many of whom were citizens – during World War II.

Remember, he was America’s top legal officer at the time, so a close examination of his actions are warranted. He is said to have personally opposed the wholesale internment of nearly 120,000 people – especially given the results of FBI investigations that revealed no looming plot that these people were engaged in.

Nonetheless, despite his own misgivings and the protests of others like Assistant to the A.G. James Rowe Jr., Biddle ultimately acquiesced to the mounting pressure. The War Department wanted large areas of the western states turned into zones that permitted suspension of the writ of habeas corpus – and Biddle agreed. President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.

The documentary evidence is fascinating. You can read Biddle’s memo, and others’, here. It may have been small consolation in Biddle’s later years – and absolutely no consolation to incarcerated citizens – that he always regretted his decision.

Which makes the play’s title all the more evocative.

“Trying” opens tonight, Friday, January 12, and runs through February 4. It features Studio Member Alan Austin as Francis Biddle and guest artist Vanessa Benjamin as Sarah. Produced by Walt Pedano with direction by Judy Rollings.

Show times are Friday & Saturday nights at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm for all productions. The theatre is at 4848 E. Cactus Rd, #406, Scottsdale, AZ 85254.

Tickets are available here or at the Box Office: 602-765-0120.

For more information, go here.

You can watch a video about the play below:

Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was sent to Manzanar, a relocation camp in the eastern Sierra, after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Democracy needs its heroes.

That’s the lesson I took away from a Los Angeles Times story this week. It’s a tale of bravery and success against almost insurmountable odds. And it tells us a little about patience, too.

The story by Kate Linthicum opens, “Every morning, she climbed the wide marble steps of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was not trained for this work. She was a homemaker, not a historian. But she had a lifetime of simmering anger and unanswered questions.”

Those questions had to do with the “racial prejudice behind the forced relocation of citizens of Japanese descent after Pearl Harbor.”

The story tells how Herzig-Yoshinaga transformed from a teenage girl whose family was imprisoned in horse stables and later an internment camp, into a woman who did the difficult research work that helped transform a nation’s response to a years-long injustice.

Eventually, her work and that of others led to an official government apology and reparations for those who had been placed in what she calls concentration camps, or gulags.

I’ve written before about Tom Ikeda and Densho, an organization that works to preserve and tell the amazing stories of those—almost every one an American citizen—who were incarcerated.

In case you think that all of that is simply ancient history, you may have missed a remarkable admission from the U.S. Government last month. Neal Katyal, then the Interim Solicitor General, made the striking admission that his Word War II-era predecessor had lied to the Supreme Court on relevant and substantive issues related to the internment. As the story says:

“Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, in an extraordinary admission of misconduct, took to task one of his predecessors for hiding evidence and deceiving the Supreme Court in two of the major cases in its history: the World War II rulings that upheld the detention of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans.”

“Katyal said Tuesday that Charles Fahy, an appointee of President Franklin Roosevelt, deliberately hid from the court a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence that concluded the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast did not pose a military threat. The report indicated there was no evidence the Japanese-Americans were disloyal, acting as spies or signaling enemy submarines, as some at the time had suggested.”

Tom Ikeda of Densho

Many in the country had posited exactly that for many years. But would the government ever have made such an acknowledgment without steady pressure from people like Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga and groups like Densho? Unlikely.

Recently, I have been reading an article in the journal Western Legal History. That’s a phenomenal volume published by the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society. The article I’m focused on at the moment tells a little-known history of the treatment of Japanese Americans under martial law in Hawaii during World War II. It is a cautionary tale for any American who prizes civil liberties.

Those who would face injustice head-on and seek to make change will always be a small group. And those of us who hope we would take such action rather than remain silent can take our shot of courage from people like Herzig-Yoshinaga.

Read the whole Los Angeles Times story here.