By Anna Kaplan
With Alexander Kaplan-Reyes
If you are wondering what a musical review is doing on here, wonder no further. ALLEGIANCE – A NEW MUSICAL is a production that exists because of George Takei, known to STAR TREK fans everywhere as Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the Enterprise and Captain of the Excelsior. His sense of humor and exuberance has attracted over 2.5 million Facebook followers and resulted in him penning a book called “Oh Myyy!”
To those who have followed his many activities in Los Angeles, or know about the Japanese-American community, he is a civic leader. He has unceasingly strived to tell the story of the Japanese internment during World War II to those who don’t know about it, and to get reparations made to the people whose lives were destroyed by the shameful policy of the United States putting Japanese and Japanese Americans into concentration camps after entering the war.
George’s intense feelings about his experiences during four years in internment camps, and a chance meeting with musical creator Jay Kuo in 2008 helped inspire Kuo and writer Lorenzo Thione to create ALLEGIANCE, with additional work by Marc Acito. George shares a passion for this musical with others, like director Stafford Arima, whose family was interned in a Canadian camp.
The cast of the musical is almost all Asian, although mostly not Japanese, but many of the other people working on ALLEGIANCE have a personal connection to the musical. For example, the Tony-award winning and exquisite Lea Salonga is Filipina, but her husband is Japanese American and she wants her daughter to know this history.
ALLEGIANCE is the story of a family interned at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. The three key actors in the production are Salonga, Takei, and a relative new-comer, Telly Leung (Glee, Godspell, Flower Drum Song). Takei plays two roles. He bookends the show as an old Sam Kimura, who is reevaluating his life. Sam Kimura was devastated by the camps and the war, and Takei plays him with dignity and strength. Leung plays the young Sammy, and Salonga plays his sister, Kei. Wisely the writers added the part of the Kimura grandfather Ojii-San to keep Takei onstage. Ojii-san is wise, touching, and also brings some needed comic relief.
As old Sam looks back at his life, we see him as a high school student in Salinas, California who considers himself an American who just happens to be of Japanese descent, at odds with his Japanese-born father. After Pearl Harbor is bombed, the Kimura family, like the other Japanese on the West Coast are harassed and shipped off to camps, losing their homes and businesses as well as having their allegiance questioned and their freedom and dignity denied.
Everyone in the camp has to find a way to cope with intolerable living conditions and unthinkable regulations. The older generation like Ojii-san counsel “Gaman” or endurance, but many of the younger men feel compelled to take action of some kind. Sammy follows the path of the JACL, the Japanese American Citizens League which was founded in 1929, and of its wartime leader Mike Matsuoka, a real and controversial figure who may have been complicit with some of the actions taken against the Japanese by the American government. His portrayal in the musical has stirred up a lot of controversy especially in the Japanese-American community.
The fictional Kimura family is divided during the events of the musical. Some have said that Allegiance focuses too much on the Kimura family’s problems instead of the greater issues. I think this in some ways misses the point of the musical, which shows how Japanese-Americans actually dealt with the internment, and how different members of the family each tried to find a bit of home in the harsh world of the camp. It is about the human side of the internment, rather than the American government’s failures and unforgiveable actions. In places like Heart Mountain, where each family had to live together in only one room, family was especially important.
Although ALLEGIANCE lacks a signature song and an unforgettable score, the singers behind it elevate the music. Naturally, the standout performance is Lea Salonga. Salonga is one of Broadway’s darlings, originating the role of Kim in Miss Saigon and playing both Eponine and Fantine in separate performances of Les Miserables, as well as providing the singing voices of two of Disney’s princesses, Jasmine and Mulan. She is as absolutely masterful and captivating as you would expect. Telly Leung has a long way to go to match her impressive resume, but together, they solidly anchor the musical’s cast.
George Takei has a few singing bits as Ojii-san. Although he is not a singer, he captures the character’s wisdom and quirkiness perfectly. The Japanese-based numbers are extremely good, including “Gaman” and a short duet between Takei and Salonga.
Within camps like Heart Mountain was a larger sense of community, but there were divisions between those who wanted to cooperate and those who did not. Two specific choices crystallize these differences, in reality and in the musical. One was the choice of some of the young men who volunteered to fight for the United States while their families were in camps. They formed the most highly-decorated unit in the European theater, the 442nd unit, which sustained record-high casualties. The question of whether or not they were knowingly sent out on suicide missions is raised during the play, a topic which causes yet more controversy. Sammy volunteers to go.
A second flash point occurred when the United States government demanded that all the camp internees fill out a loyalty questionnaire. Two questions in particular, 28 and 29, were offensive and impossible for many to answer, splitting family and friends. For example, they asked everyone, including old women, if they would be ready to fight in the war against Japan. Those who answered “No, No” to these questions were treated the most harshly.
While the story of ALLEGIANCE is specifically and uniquely linked to the Japanese and Japanese-American community during a specific time and place, it could have been another group. It is important to remember that the United States government placed American citizens in concentration camps. While they were not like the camps in German-held Europe, they were concentration camps nonetheless.
A theatrical drama demands conflict. Masaoka most likely served as the musical’s “villain” in response to the release of documents that indicate that he might have broached the idea of a suicide battalion like the 442nd well before it was actually formed. The Allegiance website features an article discussing Masaoka and these documents. Anyone who wants to learn more about Masaoka and much more can certainly start by reading the information on the part of the ALLEGIANCE website called “Japanese American Internment (http://www.allegiancemusical.com/japanese-american-internment).”
As the article discussing Masaoka’s involvement itself states, this is only one of a number of possible portrayals of Masaoka. No one single portrayal will make everyone happy, nor will it capture all of his choices, and the effects those decisions had on everyone else. No single historical account or analysis can completely and accurately portray the history it covers, completely free of bias or narrative intent. This is fiction, and a musical on top of that, so of course there are some inaccuracies and/or liberties taken with reality. Masaoka did later try and help get reparations for the people in the camps, and that is stated in the play, the program, and on the website, so even the play does not completely simplify his role to that of the villain.
I believe very strongly that trying to decide whether or not this fictional representation of a real person is accurate or not detracts from the overall importance of the story and achievements of the musical. I hope it sparks debate and helps impart this historical lesson to people who know nothing about it.
I cannot recommend ALLEGIANCE highly enough. I did see one of the previews. There were changes still being made. Perhaps some of the controversial issues will be handled slightly differently. But it is my strong hope that this musical does get to Broadway and that many more people get to see it.
As a musical, ALLEGIANCE is a spirited, charming and touching experience, containing both tragedy and uplifting, life-affirming moments. It is entertainment, and transports the audience somewhere else. They care about what happens to the people in the musical. I saw a sold-out performance, and the audience laughed, wept, and jumped up to give the cast a standing ovation. Hopefully others will get the chance to do the same.
ALLEGIANCE is playing at the San Diego Old Globe Theater through October 28th. Please visit the site for more information. There are also links to get tickets. allegiancemusical.com
Anna Kaplan MD is a freelance writer who wrote about STAR TREK for the magazine Cinefantastique among others. She first spoke with George Takei in 1995, although she caught a glimpse of him in his dressing room during the last week of filming on the original series in 1969. Many of her articles can still be found online. She can be reached at https://www.elance.com/s/dock/
Alexander Kaplan-Reyes is a graduate student in Asian Studies at UCLA studying Japanese history. While an undergraduate at Occidental College, he used Takei’s autobiography in a paper about the Japanese-American internment. He is also a member of the GMCLA, who performed at George’s marriage to his husband Brad.