He is an actor best known for his portrayal of Mr. Sulu on Star Trek, an activist who is outspoken about LGBTQ rights, and a social media maven who captivates millions of fans every day on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But perhaps George Takei’s most important mission is the one he is currently undertaking on the Broadway stage: Educating the world about the wrongful imprisonment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans in camps scattered across the U.S. during World War II.
As one of the stars of Allegiance, a Broadway musical inspired by Takei’s experiences in the internment camps, the man affectionately known as “Uncle George” describes the injustices of putting Japanese Americans – many of them U.S. citizens – behind the barbed wire fences and the politics that caused friction within the Japanese American community.
“I know the power of stereotypes,” says Takei during the talk George Takei: From Barbed Wire to Broadway at Japan Society on January 25. “The bombing of Pearl Harbor triggered hysteria, and we were put in camps because we looked like the enemy.”
Kermit Roosevelt, the great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and author of the coincidentally named Allegiance, a historical novel centered around the same dark period in our nation’s history, moderated the talk, saying that “the detention of Japanese Americans is not as well known as it should be.” Takei, who is halfway through reading Allegiance, gives Roosevelt’s book the hearty endorsement of “rip-snortin’ good!”
As research for his book, Roosevelt says he read Takei’s autobiography, To the Stars, which describes Takei’s memories of camp, most of which were actually pleasant for the five-year-old Takei. Although Takei’s parents were disgusted by having to live in narrow horses’ quarters at the Santa Anita Park, the racetrack that was their first stop on their internment saga, young George “thought it was fun to sleep where the horsies sleep. My father told me we were on a long vacation, and that’s what it was to me.”
The Takeis were later sent to the Rohwer War Relocation Center, an internment camp in southeastern Arkansas. The swampy area fascinated Takei, and when it snowed during his first winter there, he says it “was magical to see.” As much fun as those early experiences were for Takei and his younger brother and sister, Takei says, “For my parents, it was the most anguishing period of their lives.”
The magic of Rohwer quickly soured in Tule Lake, a “segregation center” located in a desolate part of northern California, just south of the Oregon border. The family was sent there because Takei’s parents responded “No” to questions 27 and 28 (see box) on the War Relocation Authority and the War Department’s “Loyalty Questionnaire,” which was used as a recruitment tool to enlist Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) in a combat unit. Those who answered “Yes” were deemed loyal; those who answered “No,” like the Takeis, were sent to Tule Lake, where conditions were much harsher than in Arkansas.
The wording of those questions, particularly #28, caused confusion among the internees over age 17 who were required to answer the questionnaire, and it created a schism within the Japanese American community. Those who answered “Yes” thought joining their fellow Americans in combat would prove their loyalty to the U.S. government. Those who answered “No” felt the use of the word “forswear” would indicate to the government that they indeed once had allegiance to the Japanese Emperor, and they also didn’t want to fight for a country that incarcerated them and called them the enemy.
This conflict is the crux of the musical Allegiance, which ends its run on Broadway on February 14.
Most of the members of New York’s Japanese American community have praised the musical for being entertaining while informing Broadway audiences about the story of internment. Yet the show’s producers have received a lot of criticism from those who argue that Allegiance is not 100% historically accurate. In rebuttal to the critics, Takei reminds us that Allegiance is a musical, not a documentary.
“Theatre is an art form, and in art we tell the truth by interpreting the truth,” says Takei. “Van Gogh painted landscapes, but they’re not photographic representations of landscapes. He painted with an emotional truth . . . Everything that happened [in Allegiance] really happened, but it is a fictional story. We do use JACL and Mike Masaoka, but they played a critical part [in the internment experience] . . . You can’t tell a story of the Civil War without Abraham Lincoln.”
Historical accuracy and creative license aside, the most important part for Takei and many others who experienced internment or have family members who were interned is that there is a musical about the internment of Japanese Americans on the Broadway stage for the first time in history. Telling that story is gratifying because it raises awareness of the prejudice and hysteria that was prevalent in the U.S. during World War II.
As Roosevelt points out, Allegiance has relevance in our current political climate. Recalling Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s desire to ban all Muslims from entering the States, Takei says, “He has a lot to learn about American history.” Takei invited Trump to see Allegiance, and reserves a seat for him at Longacre Theatre every day. The real estate tycoon has yet to take Takei up on his offer; as of January 25 he has missed 44 performances.
Although the show is ending much sooner than Takei anticipated, he told the sold-out Japan Society audience that he is proud of the musical’s accomplishments. A show about the internment on Broadway, with a cast of predominately Asian American actors, is bringing in audiences that are 37% Asian.
“That’s a fantastic record to be proud of,” says Takei.
It’s more than 70 years and a world away from the days when Takei, attending school in a tarpaper barrack behind barbed wire, began his day by ironically reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, punctuated by “with liberty and justice for all.”