Some 120,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated a few months after Pearl Harbor, by order of President Roosevelt. George Takei and his family were among them. The actor, best known as Sulu in Star Trek, is the reason why the musical Allegiance is finally bringing this shameful chapter of American history to life on Broadway.
The creative team behind Allegiance has worked hard to make this important musical both entertaining and illuminating, and Takei is just one of the many splendid performers, including Lea Salonga and Telly Leung, who boost the enterprise with both lively and touching moments. But the hard work and the great cast can’t completely mask the ways the show falls short.
Allegiance is being promoted as “inspired by a true story,” and in a program note, we’re told how playwright Mark Acito and composer Jay Kuo were attending In The Heights when they spotted George Takei in the audience, crying. Takei explained to them that he identified with the struggles of the immigrant family in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, and told them the story of his family’s imprisonment when he was a small child. It was Takei’s story that inspired them to write a new musical.
But Acito and Kuo and third book-writer Lorenzo Thione have not directly based Allegiance on Takei nor his family. The musical follows a fictional family, the Kimuras, who are artichoke farmers in California ordered to evacuate their farm, forced to sell it to a neighbor for a tenth of what it was worth, and settled into a dusty “relocation center” in an unpopulated area of Wyoming. The camp is called Heart Mountain, which was the name of one of the actual internment camps.
Takei, making his Broadway debut at the age of 78, portrays the Kimura’s son Sammy as an old man in 2001, both at the beginning and at the end of the musical. During the bulk of the play, which takes place in the 1940’s, Takei plays Ojii-chan, the Kimura grandfather. But Telly Leung carries much of the weight of the show playing Sammy as a young man, a true-blue American citizen whose reaction to the state-sponsored maltreatment is to prove his loyalty by enlisting in the U.S. Army.
Lea Salonga plays Sammy’s sister Kei, who is attracted to another resident of the camp, Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), whose reaction is the opposite of Sammy’s – he organizes protests against the loyalty oath the government was requiring that the internees sign, or risk harsher punishment. The two central reactions are neatly summed up when Sammy salutes at the same time that Frankie raises his fist in the air.
To provide the larger context, Greg Watanabe portrays Mike Masaoka, an actual historical figure who served as National Secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League, shown here as trying to argue with Washington bureaucrats to ease the harsh policies against Japanese-Americans while doing the bureaucrats’ bidding by putting a happy face on those policies for his community and the public at large. We see Masaoka making a successfully persuasive argument for lifting the ban on Japanese-Americans enlisting in the U.S. military by asking for them to be placed in a segregated unit and given “the most dangerous missions, even if it means certain death.” His dealings are with War Relocation Authority “Director Dillon” (Scott Wise, who plays four other roles.) (The actual head of the War Relocation Authority was named Dillon S. Myer, who took over after its first director, Milton Eisenhower, Dwight Eisenhower’s brother, resigned in protest over the administration’s harsh policies towards the Japanese-Americans.)
Takei’s character Ojii-chan likes to play silly card tricks and garden, and is a gentle figure of fun. He has just one song in the show, “Ishi Kara Ishi,” a duet with Salonga, in which he is trying to instill in his granddaughter his own sense of optimism and uplift. The same thing can be said of the musical itself. There are several terrific dance numbers energetically choreographed by Andrew Palermo, some of them set to original music in the style of 40’s swing and one rhythmic melody that mimics the Andrews Sisters sung by three men in military uniform.
In a bouncy satiric number in the style of Kander and Ebb called “Paradise,” the Japanese women wear paper caps pretending to be soldiers with brooms as rifles while Frankie sings
Don’t you love to freeze in line
For soggy bowls of rice
Just put up, and shut up,
Cause you’re in paradise.
Leung, in his fifth role on Broadway but his first principal lead, firmly establishes himself as a leading man, dashing and dexterously navigating the various moods and tones.
Allegiance is not all uplift. It is blunt in depicting the harshness and injustice of the Japanese-American internment. Perhaps ironically, the show has provoked a damning critique by Frank Abe, whose bio identifies him as the “producer/director of the documentary ‘Conscience and the Constitution,’ about the organized resistance at the Heart Mountain concentration camp during World War II.”
Writing in the Japanese-American newspaper Nichi Bei, Abe accuses Allegiance of being riddled with historical inaccuracies. His major objection is to what he considers the exaggerated harshness, with the conditions at Heart Mountain presented in the musical closer to Stalag 17, he says, than historical reality. The men and the women were not separated upon arrival at Heart Mountain, Abe says, and they were not ordered to strip in order for the nurse to inspect them, both of which happen in Allegiance. There was no curfew and no military commands barked over loudspeakers; there were no loudspeakers and Heart Mountain was civilian run. While there were armed guards manning watchtowers, no weapons were permitted inside the camp itself, a fact that renders the most dramatic scenes in the musical “preposterous.”
Yet, even Abe concedes that some of these conditions did exist in some of the other camps, ones where those who refused to sign the loyalty oath were sent, and Abe does say camp life “was degrading and dehumanizing.” Nobody disputes that the internees, most of whom were American citizens, were deprived of their basic rights for no other reason than their ethnic heritage; that they were given inadequate health care; and they were forced to sign a loyalty oath that no German-Americans or Italian-Americans had to sign (“We’re at war with Italy but nobody put Joe DiMaggio in a camp,” one internee says in the show.) Most theatergoers would probably dismiss Abe’s concerns as the quibbles of a passionate historian. (Please see my article entitled History vs. Theater, for a discussion of the competing demands of putting a historical moment on stage.)
Still, the problem of authenticity pops up in a different way. Allegiance too often feels as if the creative team were working from a Broadway musical checklist: Here’s your romance, your soaring Broadway ballad, your lively dance number, your comic relief, your Les Miz grimness, your climactic moment of violence. The foreground plot involving Sammy’s relationship with Hannah the white nurse in the camp (Katie Rose Clark), and his complicated relationship with his sister and with her love interest Frankie, is not just unlikely; it sucks up far more attention than it deserves. It doesn’t seem an honest reflection of an egregious moment in history created by fear and bigotry. Rather, it feels imposed by producers motivated by a different fear – that they can’t otherwise bring in a Broadway audience.
If there are some unfortunate choices and missed opportunities in Allegiance, they are outweighed by what it does right, especially the heft of the subject matter and the talent of the cast.
Allegiance is on stage at the Longacre Theater (220 West 48th Street, New York, N.Y. 10036, between Broadway and 8th Avenue), NYC.
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