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“Allegiance”: An American Story for the Times

By Angela Bao

Mar. 1, 2018
Actor George Takei as Sammy Kimura in “Allegiance”
Actor George Takei as Sammy Kimura in “Allegiance”

How a musical inspired by George Takei’s experience in Japanese internment camps is especially relevant today.

Actor and activist George Takei was just 5 years old when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942 shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which resulted in the incarceration of Japanese Americans in internment camps. He, his sister, brother, and parents were five of approximately 120,000 people—the majority of whom were American citizens, including himself and his family—who were forced to give up everything, all because of their ethnicity.

“My parents lost everything that they’d worked for in their lives,” Takei says of his internment. “Our home, our business, their freedom. That is against what American democracy is.”

Allegiance,” which originally ran on Broadway in 2015, was inspired by Takei’s life in the camps, and follows the Kimura family after they are interned. It’s a story of patriotism, resistance, and having empathy and love for one another. Although it wasn’t planned this way, East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center’s (JACCC) decision to produce “Allegiance” now couldn’t feel timelier.

“To me, there’s just a particular contemporary resonance right now, particularly after the election, as we talk about the Muslim ban, DACA, all that,” says Snehal Desai, the producing artistic director of East West Players, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) immigration controversy currently being debated in Congress. “I felt it was really important to make sure that we remember this history. These are crazy days, and we’re sometimes not too far from thoughts of doing exactly what happened to these citizens.”

However, the Los Angeles premiere of “Allegiance” also holds historical significance: It will be performed in the Aratani Theater in LA’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, the home of the largest Japanese American population in the country.

"We want this story to be known to all Americans because it is an important American story [and an] egregious violation of our United States Constitution."

- George Takei

The “Allegiance” cast and team
The “Allegiance” cast and team

“We thought bringing it home to Little Tokyo would be an awesome opportunity to connect to the local history and community,” says Alison De La Cruz, the director of performing arts and community engagement at JACCC. “But also to feature this story and these artists on a stage that has been in the community for 35 years, but that sometimes people don’t know about.”

Rethinking what it means to be American

“Allegiance” wants to challenge conventional definitions of what it means to be an American and expand beyond the stereotypical images of white picket fences and flag-waving patriotism—it also wants people to confront the fact that what America preaches and what America enacts are sometimes contradictory.

“It’s a very powerfully relevant issue today,” emphasizes Takei, who also stars in the musical as Ojii-chan (grandfather) and an older Sammy Kimura. “We’re talking about DACA, immigration. This thing of broad-sweeping certain ethnic or religious groups as all potential spies, saboteurs, terrorists, murderers, rapists is un-American.”

“I knew it was a show of importance, not only for the Japanese American community, but for the larger Los Angeles community,” adds De La Cruz. “We’ve been able to collaborate with all these amazing artists and technicians to be able to provide this place…to learn about the story if they didn’t know about it, to see themselves reflected, and to think about, in this particular moment and time, what it means to be an American, who we want to be, and how we want to treat each other.”

Greg Watanabe, who plays Mike Masaoka in the LA production and in the original Broadway run, hopes that it will also remind Japanese Americans that their pasts and the present experiences of Muslims, Hispanics, and African Americans are not that dissimilar.

“I think it’s really important for, not only anybody outside of our community sees this show, but it’s really important for JAs (Japanese Americans) to see our show and feel a strong sense of solidarity with those other communities,” he believes. “We have our own teaching within our community—we’re our own influencers. We can’t listen to those who are trying to drive a wedge between us and other communities of color.”

A message of resistance

One of the musical’s main themes is its message of resistance and perseverance in the face of persecution, believes Desai. “Resistance in terms of speaking out for your fellow citizens,” he explains. “Organizing. What’s inspiring about this story is the grace with which they endure these situations. We hope that folks will be both moved and entertained by the story, but, more than anything, become ultra-vigilant in this day and age.”

In fact, one of the main songs is titled, “Gaman,” which is a Japanese term that means to endure the unbearable with patience and dignity, which resonated with the cast.

Elena Wang as Kei Kimura in “Allegiance”
Elena Wang as Kei Kimura in “Allegiance”
"To me, there’s just a particular contemporary resonance right now, particularly after the election, as we talk about the Muslim ban, DACA, all that. I felt it was really important to make sure that we remember this history."

- Snehal Desai

Elena Wang and Ethan Le Phong, who play the leads, Kei and Sammy Kimura, respectively, hope that the audience takes that message to heart. “We’ve been through a lot of hardships in our lives,” says Wang. “Even that song ‘Gaman’ we use on a daily basis—you know, banding together and finding strength.”

Le Phong agrees: “Finding the inner strength of whatever situation you’re in—we will rise above it.”

Wang nods. “I think it’s going to be a huge eye-opener, to tell a story in a way where people can go, ‘Oh my gosh, I can see the hurt from a character; I can actually feel empathy for them.’ It’s not just about speaking to the mind, but to the heart.”

Keeping the history alive

All of this history and the sacrifices of those affected by the Japanese incarceration would be moot if people didn’t remember it, hence why East West Players and JACCC felt it was necessary to bring this musical to Los Angeles—to remind people of an important part of American history and not to repeat past mistakes.

“You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve spoken to in the United States who don’t know about [the Japanese internment],” exclaims Eymard Cabling, who plays Frankie Suzuki in the musical. “But now we can educate because we can tell stories—true stories—that mean a lot to people, and the audience can walk away more informed about what happened in the world, spread it more easily and say, ‘This is what happened,’ so we don’t forget.”

Watanabe says that, even though his father’s family had been incarcerated, he had only learned about the camps after he started working in Asian American theater. “At that time, they didn’t teach it in school,” he says, adding that, because of the disgrace and shame surrounding it, it’s an often glossed-over part of American history.

De La Cruz also sees it as an opportunity for Japanese Americans to reconcile their own traumatic history. “It’s a show that I think families can bring people to,” she says. “They can talk with each other about what the themes are, what the history is in the show. It’s an opportunity for Japanese American families who maybe haven’t talked about camp before to also continue those conversations. That’s what you want in a show—you want it to connect to different people.”

Takei hopes that “Allegiance” and its message will live on well beyond him, by passing the story to younger generations. “I’m the last generation that experienced the internment,” he shares. “We wanted to institutionalize that story so it wouldn’t die off with us. With our matinees of this performance, I think we’ve secured funds to bus youngsters, school children, to see these. We want this story to be known to all Americans because it is an important American story [and an] egregious violation of our United States Constitution.”

“Allegiance” is playing in Boston until June 2. Tickets are available for purchase at www.allegiancemusical.com

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