Last weekend, my husband and I (and some blogger friends) headed up to New York to catch one of the first Broadway performances of Allegiance, a musical based on George Takei’s experiences during his family’s internment under Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.
That’s right, a musical about the U.S. government’s internment of its Japanese American citizens.
Despite the devastating subject matter, the play is…er…hilarious. And joyful. And uplifting. This is of course the genius of Takei himself who, although the only actor in the production who was himself one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans interned, simply cannot play a role that is without humor.
The whole experience was a bit surreal – I was aware of the details of the Japanese American internment, but it’s emotionally challenging (to say the least) to be asked to imagine a situation in which your own government is willing to systematically round up its citizens on the sheer basis of their race.
And yet the emotional entry point for the audience is so simple: a family, with typical family problems, caught up in the larger drama around them. Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung) dreams of joining the Army, but Japanese Americans are barred from serving. His sister, Kei (Lea Salonga) dreams of a life free of the stringent expectations of women and family life. Their father, Tatsuo Kimura (Christòpheren Nomura), is a demanding, stressful presence in both their lives; their grandfather (George Takei) a source of comfort.
These are the human relationships that keep the play so steadfastly relate-able even as the unthinkable unfolds. The parallel love stories are told with all the sweet innocence of an old Hollywood romance, a direct contrast to the dark helplessness of the situation.
I’ve actually wanted to see Allegiance since long before I began blogging, because I knew the central romance was between Sammy and Hannah Campbell, a US Army nurse assigned to the camp. (An AMWF Broadway musical? Hell yeah, I’m there.) When Sammy falls for Hannah (Katie Rose Clarke) there were moments that felt very real, such as when another soldier accuses Hannah of the dreaded “yellow fever” (had that one tossed in my direction once or twice). But I actually found myself more invested in the other central romance between Sammy’s sister Kei and Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), who together lead a resistance movement when the government distributes a mandatory “loyalty questionnaire”.
Meanwhile, back in 2015, the Japanese American Citizens League released a statement illuminating their concerns regarding the musical, in particular the portrayal of Mike Masaoka, the national secretary of the JACL at the time of the internment. The statement reads, in part:
Allegiance, which originally debuted in San Diego in 2012, is a fictional musical inspired by the life of George Takei, who also stars in the performance opening on Broadway next month. The JACL appreciates the effort by Mr. Takei to bring the story of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II to a wide audience. However, it is important to keep in mind that this musical is an artistic interpretation of events that provide a backdrop for a love story. Although most of the characters, which are loosely based on individuals, have fictional names, the JACL is disturbed by the play’s use of the names of the Japanese American Citizens League and of Mike Masaoka. The JACL is concerned that by using actual names, audience members may forget that they are watching a historical fiction.
The response surprised me. Masaoka, who died in 1991, is by no means depicted as a perfect character, but he was portrayed as backed into a corner by the U.S. government and is partially redeemed at the end of the play. I understand why the JACL might be interested in protecting the reputation of one of their most famous members, but I am a little shocked they’d throw another under the bus for it. The play is fictitious, yes; but the man on stage and his history are not, and it seems somewhat incongruous to assert that Takei somehow does not know what he’s talking about. To place such a strong emphasis on the fictitious nature of the play has the effect of, once again, downplaying the grave reality of history.