Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
The man standing on stage looks like George Takei, but when he speaks, it’s not with the mellifluous, warm voice of a famous actor and advocate. His voice is coarse, ragged and grizzled. Instead of a golden Starfleet uniform, he is wearing a drab olive green World War II uniform, with old insignia and medals scattered across his chest.
His name is Sam Kimura, and he is a Japanese American veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Estranged from his family for decades, the sudden news of his sister’s death compels him to “remember the time no one speaks of anymore.”
“All the things that happened, that I’d sooner forget,” Kimura says, and suddenly both he and the audience are plunged into memories of 1941–decades earlier when Sammy Kimura is an all-American high school student body president determined to go places, only to end up in an impossible position, stagnating in an impossible prison.
Allegiance: A New American Musical tells the story of the Kimura family: artichoke farm owner and first generation Japanese American Tatsuo Kimura, his children Keiko and Sammy, and their grandfather (“Ojii-San” also played by George Takei). Together, the family must face the loss of their farm, betrayal from their community and government, and imprisonment in an internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
For co-producers Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, two fateful meetings with George Takei and his husband Brad led to the development of Allegiance. Thione told Racebending.com that creating a musical with a primarily Asian American cast was not an obstacle for developing the show. Recruiting an all-star cast of Asian performers proved to be more challenging for the production.
“It certainly wasn’t any case where we encountered resistance for telling an Asian American story,” Thione said. “If anything, we got positive feedback for having an Asian American cast.”
Sammy’s sister Kei is played by Broadway legend Lea Salonga, who has voiced two Disney princesses and was the first Asian actress to portray Eponine and Fantine in Les Miserables on Broadway. Rising Broadway star Telly Leung shares the starring role with Takei as young Sammy. A major component of casting the musical was ensuring that the “stars” could–literally–align. George Takei was part of the creative process very on, and Lea Salonga and Telly Leung were both approached by the producers and immediately drawn to the project “[Lea Salonga] is a big Star Trek fan and geek,” Thione explained, “so the idea of performing with ‘Sulu’ was actually something very exciting.”
Industry veteran Paul Nakauchi, who also lent his voice to Avatar: The Last Airbender, delivers an understated and powerful performance as Kei and Sammy’s indomitable father. These performances are bolstered by Broadway veteran Michael K. Lee, who plays Frankie Suzuki, a No-No boy who stands up to the government and is Sammy’s character foil. The show’s only historical figure, controversial Japanese American Citizens League figurehead Mike Masaoka, is depicted by Paolo Montalban--best known to an entire generation as the Prince Charming to Brandy’s 1997 Cinderella.
Essentially, the show is a brilliant ensemble that includes of some of the most talented Asian Americans who have ever performed on the musical theater stage. This experience–in and of itself–is something quite special. So often, Asian Americans stage performers are scattered across different shows playing supporting roles. It is an incredible honor to be able to see them perform in the same show, all together, carrying a show that tells such an important part of Asian American history.
“It’s an incredible company of story tellers we have,” actor Telly Leung, who stars as the younger Sammy Kimura, told Racebending.com. “I’ve done a lot of shows, but this one is very special. We all feel the weight of the responsibility to tell this story as clearly and effectively as we can – from all departments. It’s not just the cast, but the music department, the scenic department, the lighting, costumes… We are all trying to focus our story and create one common theatrical message. It takes an incredible leader to pull all of these departments together, and I think that is the key to the supportive environment we are currently working in. Stafford Arima is one of the best directors–and best leaders of a company–I’ve ever worked with.”
Leung is spot on–as an audience member, you can feel the heart the entire production has put into creating this musical. The set design by Donyale Werle is innovative and gorgeous. Panels of jagged paper shift and turn, aided by photographic projections to convey the bleakness of the Heart Mountain camp. The score and songs by Jay Kuo work really well within the context of the story, bolstered by a talented and emotive cast and a small-but-strong pit orchestra. The choreography is energetic and the costumes help transport the audiences to a believable 1940s.
The musical is a momentous accomplishment, a collaboration between survivors of the internment camps, their descendants, Asian American performers and community members, and their allies. George Takei has spoken prominently about his experiences as a young child interned in the camps with his family. Skimming the playbill, we learned that the director, Stafford Arima, had family members who were interned in camps in Canada. Paul Nakauchi, who plays Kei and Sammy’s father in the musical, is the son of camp survivors. We also learned that lead actress Lea Salonga has relatives on her husband’s side who served in Japanese American units in World War II, and that composer Jay Kuo, who practices as a civil rights attorney, has litigated cases related to the Japanese American internment. Knowledge of just how personally connected the artists behind the musical are to this dark part of North American history adds yet another layer of complexity to this story.
The family ruptures inflicted by the brutal camp environment, as depicted in this fictional play, cannot be separated from the truth of what happened to a whole community of American people. Prior to the show’s opening, George Takei told the Los Angeles Times about how, as a teenager, he blamed his father for his family’s internment: “He was silent. Then he said, ‘Maybe you’re right’ and went into his bedroom and closed the door. I realized I hurt him. I felt like I should apologize, but it felt awkward and I didn’t. It’s one of those regrets I’ll always have.”
As Takei portrays a character living with the same regrets in Allegiance, you can see the tears streaming down his face. They’re real, they’re raw, and they snap the audience out of our tendency to view the internment of thousands of Japanese American and Japanese Canadian people from the safety of our emotional detachment.
So often, the story of the Japanese American internment is taught using this narrative: “A terrible injustice was inflicted upon Japanese Americans.” When we talk about the internment we focus on what the government did. Allegiance challenges this passive narrative by focusing how the Japanese American communities responded to this experience. It shifts this narrative to show how Japanese Americans found agency in the face of oppression. As audience members, we are confronted with the microcosmic impact of the Japanese American internment and how it irreparably changed the families that were imprisoned.
“I want the audience to see how the internment changed the course of this kid’s life,” Leung says of his character. In the play, Leung masterfully depicts Sammy’s character arc from idealistic high schooler to weary veteran. “At the top of the play, we see Sammy filled with hopes and dreams. He just became class president. He wants to go to UCLA, travel, go to Europe, ecetera. All of these hopes and dreams are taken away from him on December 7th, when Pearl Harbor is bombed. If December 7th had never happened and if his family was not interned, would Sammy have had a different life? Would he have allied with Masaoka? Would he have joined the 442nd and fought in the war?
“Having the ‘life that he was supposed to have’ taken away from him so quickly and so unjustly has a profound affect on a person. Sammy becomes disillusioned. He becomes hardened. I wanted the audience to understand this journey, and physically–and audibly–see the effects of this ‘hardening’ of the spirit.”
Sammy’s understanding of his imprisonment is further challenged by a romance he develops with a white Quaker volunteer at the internment camps, Hannah (Allie Trimm). As they learn from each other and support each other in the Camp, both discover they hold preexisting stereotypes about the others’ culture, and differing views on the war and patriotism. The audience is reminded that even if Sammy were not incarcerated, interracial marriage would still be illegal for him, and that the camp is only one barrier that Sammy must overcome to find freedom.
In Allegiance, the Kimura family experiences internment and ultimately must choose sides after an unjust Loyalty Questionnaire is issued to each of the internees. After losing their homes and experiencing incarceration with no due process by the government, each internee must choose whether or not to swear loyalty to the United States and offer to serve in the military–but the insulting questionnaire is worded so that no matter how it is answered, the internees self-identify as traitors. How each member of the Kimura family chooses to answer these questions has ramifications on the family for decades to come.
“We decided to tell the story of people who very precisely fell on both sides of this controversy with the very interesting twist that those people are all being part of one family,” book writer Lorenzo Thione told Racebending.com “How does political allegiance split your family when it hits so close to home?”
Sammy is willing to do anything to prove that he is an American, even as his father cautions that he is sublimating his cultural identity in the face of immense racism. He eventually sides with JACL President Mike Masaoka, who the musical presents as a mouthpiece for the American government directed at the Japanese American community. One character emphatically calls Masaoka a “monster.” At times, the characters direct more anger towards Masaoka than at the systems of government and racism that constricted Japanese American families and used Masaoka as a tool of social control. Actor Paolo Montalban is given the unenviable task of conveying the Masaoka’s anxiety, naivete, and dogmatism.
“The thing that makes the internment such a travesty to people like Sammy is that they were judged solely based on their race– on the color of his skin–and nothing more,” Leung said. “I think the key to achieving equality–and to understanding Sammy’s desire to prove he’s more than the color of his skin–is: how can we find the things we do have in common? This is a diverse nation, but there are basic things that make us all the same, no matter what race or orientation we are. We all want ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. These things are not defined by the color of one’s skin or the individual’s sexual orientation. These are all things we want–as human beings.”
“I certainly knew what most Americans know [about the internment], which was very little,” co-producer and writer Lorenzo Thione said. “This musical inspired us to dig deep and learn more about one of the most egregious violations of our Constitution in our history.”
Thione, Kuo, and co-writer Marc Acito researched books, documentaries, museums, online databases, and university libraries to learn more about the internment, stumbling upon the story of the Heart Mountain Resisters and the controversial Lim report, and the community’s mixed feelings on Masaoka.
As an actor in the production, Telly Leung also researched the internment. “Growing up in New York City, I went to public school. On the east coast, the internment was nothing more than a short paragraph in our history books,” Leung said. “After being on the west coast with the show, I’m learning that the internment is something that is much more discussed on this coast. There is a deeper connection to this story out west because it directly affected the family and ancestors of Japanese Americans here.”
As part of his “actor’s homework,” Leung researched the history of the Japanese American Internment. “As an actor, I also needed to get into the characters and the mindset of what it was like to be a Japanese American in 1941 before and after Pearl Harbor,” Leung said. “For this kind of research, the sensory ‘homework’ of what is felt, smelled, tasted, looked like–all the stuff that’s useful to us as actors on stage–George [Takei] was actually my best resource because he lived the internment as a child.”
With the goal of helping audiences learn more about the Japanese American Internment, the playbill to Allegiance contains several educational articles and several additional articles are available on the show’s website.
Additionally, the production and The Old Globe theater partnered with artist Wendy Maruyama to display a portion of her large scale sculptural installation, “The Tag Project” in the lobby of The Old Globe. This installation memorializes the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in the camps during World War II by replicating the identification tags issued to the internees. The looming, hanging pillars of tags physically demonstrate the enormity of Americans directly impacted by the internment.
Next door, within the Museum of Man Annex, the Old Globe also partnered with the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego to present “Allegiance: A San Diego Perspective,” a free museum exhibit created by internment camps survivors from San Diego and their families. The display contains thousands of artifacts, maps, art, photographs, and belongings donated by families from San Diego. Docents of the exhibit include men and women who were interned at the camps as children.
We had the privilege of speaking with Frank Koide, a Nisei camp survivor whose family was imprisoned in the Poston “Relocation Center” in Arizona. Koide showed museum-goers around the small exhibit, which includes sketches from him and his mother and a beautiful display of fish hooks from his family’s business tuna fishing off the coast of San Diego. Koide was imprisoned when he was 13 years old; despite spending most of his teen years interned he enlisted in the Armed Forces as an adult. He showed us his name written on a blueprint for one of the tar-paper barracks at Poston. The barracks were designed to house families in rooms that did not consistently have walls. He said that one of the most inhumane aspects of the Camps that he remembers was simply the design of the housing–barracks for hundreds of people only had six toilets, located outdoors. Very young children and the elderly would have to brave freezing weather just to make it to the bathroom. Out of all the injustices he remembers from the camps, he said that was what he remembered most.
“There aren’t too many people who are still in existence who know what it is like to be in those camps,” Koide said, explaining why he volunteers as a docent at JAHSSD exhibits. “There are a lot of other people who, due to their health, can’t volunteer. I want to share my experience.”
These exhibits, in concert with the musical, strive to ensure that the stories of the Japanese American internees will not be forgotten. Allegiance is also reaching out to local schools, and has held three free student matinees reaching over 1,800 local students through the performing arts.
On the day we attended Allegiance we had the opportunity to speak with George Takei briefly at the stage door. We thanked him for his advocacy work, including how outspoken he was against the whitewashing of Akira and promoting more opportunities for Asian American actors. “We’ve learned from history that when we don’t speak up, terrible things can happen,” Takei told us.
“[Allegiance] is not just an important family story, it’s ultimately an opportunity that America has to find that second chance to more forward,” Thione said. “To acknowledge our mistakes, not forgetting or shoving it under the rug. Moving forward in reconciliation is really a larger allegory for the crossroads America stands at.”
After four weeks of rehearsal, two weeks of tech, ten preview performances, 46 regular performances, and three free student matinees, on October 28th, 2012, Allegiance closes a successful, extended run at The Old Globe and sets it’s sights on Broadway for the 2012-13 Tony season. Future goals include a Broadway Original Cast Recording Soundtrack album and may even include finding a way to make Allegiance more accessible for people who cannot go to the theater.
After a successful Indiegogo campaign in Spring 2012, the production plans to return to fans for support and ask fans to help crowd-source fund its’ Broadway aspirations! Before that happens, Allegiance is simply asking for plenty of love and support from people who want to see an Asian American story hit Broadway and for this important story to continue to be told. The production will soon launch the Allegiance Ambassadors program, a digital and real life street team campaign to help promote the show. Similar to the Korra Nation promotional campaign, fans will be able to support the show and earn prizes like tickets, backstage passes, photos, and fan experiences.