The production team for Allegiance, the Broadway musical starring George Takei that is based on the wrongful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, announced on January 6 that the show will end its Broadway run on February 14. That means theatergoers have a little more than one month to see this spectacular story.
By now everyone knows that Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu spent part of his childhood in a couple of internment camps. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, targeting Japanese Americans as threats to national security and giving the U.S. military the right to incarcerate anyone of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens. As a result, five-year-old Takei and his family were among 120,000 Japanese Americans who were sent to live behind barbed wire in camps scattered across the western part of the U.S.
While Allegiance doesn’t tell the story of Takei’s family specifically, his experience of internment was the inspiration for producers Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione, who created an entertaining, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes heartbreaking Broadway musical centered on one of the darkest periods in American history. (Coincidentally, the family of director Stafford Arima was interned in camps in Canada.)
Allegiance focuses on the Kimuras, a fictitious California family whose patriarch is Ojii-chan, or “Grandpa” (Takei), whose son, Tatsuo (Christopheren Nomura), runs the family farm. Tatsuo has two children, daughter Kei (Lea Salonga) and son Sammy (Telly Leung). A 1991 Tony Award winner for her performance as Kim in Miss Saigon, Salonga returns to Broadway for the first time since 2007, when she portrayed Fantine in Les Miserables. She soars in Allegiance as the long-suffering farm girl who had to raise her little brother from infancy after their mother died in childbirth. Sammy is an idealistic and patriotic college student, and Leung, of Godspell, Rent, and Glee fame, portrays him with the wide-eyed enthusiasm. The strained relationship Sammy has with his father doesn’t stop him from trying to please him, but he always falls short.
Tensions develop further when the Kimura family is forced out of their home and into the Heart Mountain concentration camp simply because of their Japanese ancestry. Located in an isolated part of northwestern Wyoming, Heart Mountain’s harsh conditions – sand storms, below-freezing temperatures, lack of adequate medical supplies – make life difficult for all of the internees, especially the very young and the very old. But they persevere with gaman, the Japanese term meaning “enduring with dignity.” They make the best of the situation and try to make their environment seem normal. They plant gardens, organize dances, and even fall in love.
Yet they are divided on the issue of loyalty. To some, like Sammy, joining the Army would prove his loyalty to the U.S. and would ensure their release from the camps. To others, like Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), it made no sense to risk their lives on the battlefield for the very country that had taken away their civil liberties, all while their families are still incarcerated.
Sammy’s beliefs were in line with Mike Masaoka (Greg Watanabe), the only character that does not have a fictitious name. The executive secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), Masaoka was just as polarizing in real life as his character is onstage in Allegiance. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he became the liaison between the Japanese American community and the War Relocation Authority, the government agency that operated the internment camps. Although Masaoka was never incarcerated, he was the first Nisei to volunteer for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the famously decorated fighting unit of Japanese American soldiers, and he encouraged interned Japanese American men to enlist as a way of showing their loyalty to the U.S.
The singling out of Masaoka, the only real person in the musical, has netted Allegiance some criticism. The JACL issued a statement while the show was in previews in October 2015, saying that it was “concerned that by using actual names, audience members may forget that they are watching a historical fiction.”
When the musical premiered in San Diego in 2012, many people from the Japanese American community complained about historical inaccuracies within the plot. People who were interned or whose family members were interned at Heart Mountain denounced the presence of guns inside the camp; the portrayal of the “Resisters,” those who protested enlisting in the military; and the perceived misrepresentation of Masaoka as the “bad guy” who kept his fellow Japanese Americans incarcerated.
Since those first shows, the producers rewrote parts of the musical to correct the major gaffes that had been brought to their attention, but the Broadway production has also received lukewarm reviews.
One of the most vocal critics is Frank Abe, the producer/director of the award-winning PBS documentary Conscience and the Constitution and a former National Vice President of the Asian American Journalists Association. Abe, whose father was interned at Heart Mountain, gives detailed descriptions outlining the inaccuracies he found in Allegiance. (Click here to read his posts, but this is a SPOILER ALERT.)
Abe makes excellent points; you don’t want to mislead the audience on such a sensitive topic. But inaccuracies aside, the fact that the interment of Japanese Americans during World War II is a Broadway musical is an amazing feat. The subject matter has been presented onstage in New York, but on a smaller scale. Hold These Truths, Jeanne Sakata’s brilliant play about Gordon Hirabayashi, and Marla Hirokawa’s Nisei, an uplifting ballet based on her father’s experience in the 442nd, are perfect examples. Allegiance is, at the very least, doing what those productions did previously: Educating New Yorkers and the city’s many tourists about the existence of the camps. Audience members who attend only to see George Takei come away with a new understanding of a significant historical event that probably wasn’t in their high school history books. The events that led to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans are significant in today’s political climate, as Americans debate allowing Syrian refugees into our borders. If Allegiance prompts people to learn more about wartime hysteria and dive deeper into the facts, then it has done its job.
Unfortunately, that job will end on February 14, on Broadway, at least. According to Lia Chang, there are talks of hitting the road nationally and internationally. Go see it for the story – knowing that it’s a work of fiction based on factual events – go see it for the exhilarating ensemble numbers, go see it for George Takei and Lea Salonga and Telly Leung and the other cast members. Go see it!
Longacre Theatre – 220 W. 48th Street
Book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione
Music and Lyrics by Jay Kuo
Directed by Stafford Arima
Featured photo from Allegiance. Photo by Matthew Murphy.