George Takei may still be best known as “Star Trek’s” Mr. Sulu, but the acclaimed actor and activist has spent his post-“Trek” career pursuing entertainment and political pursuits in equal measure.
Recently, Takei’s twin passions came together in the Broadway musical “Allegiance,” based on his family’s real-life experience as victims of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Following its Broadway run, the musical is making a tour of movie theaters with a filmed performance of the show screening nationwide on Tuesday. Portland-area filmgoers can see “Allegiance” at the Cinemagic in South Portland and Saco.
Here’s a scene from “Allegiance”
I asked Takei some questions via email about his experience, the play and what lessons we can learn from both right now.
“Allegiance” is inspired by your early life when your family was one of many imprisoned in American internment camps. What specific elements of your experience do you feel “Allegiance” brings to audiences that they might not have understood beforehand?
It is vitally important that audiences understand the events of the internment from the human perspective, rather than merely the historical perspective. So much of the education around the internment focuses on cold numbers, such as “one hundred twenty thousand people” and “four years in prison camps.” These numbers and facts do not convey the real anguish and suffering of the internees, nor do we sense at how the community came together to get through those years. “Allegiance” helps close the gap by introducing audiences to individuals, whose stories they follow for the two hours of the show. They root for them, they cry for them, their hearts soar when they triumph. It is this humanizing element that so differentiates the experience.
Another aspect that our show explores that others have not is indicated by the title of the show itself. The notion of “allegiance” to one’s country has two facets: allegiance to America, right or wrong, or allegiance to fundamental American values, particularly where the country has abandoned them. There is also allegiance to one’s family, and ultimately to oneself. All of these were challenged by the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in barbed wire camps during World War II, and our show took these very difficult questions head on.
There have been other fictional works (the film “Come See The Paradise,” as an example) that attempted to bring the true scope of the injustice of the internment of Japanese-Americans into the public consciousness. Do you feel that “Allegiance’s” roots in the Asian-American creative community (yourself, the cast, the creators) were more effective in conveying the true nature of the experience?
There have been other treatments of the internment, certainly, and many were well done. It was an honor to be part of a production helmed by Asian-American creatives, including our director and the composer/lyricist. There was an authenticity to the work and an attention to cultural detail that might have gone missing in other storytelling. But beyond the groundbreaking make-up of the creative team, there was also the element of music, song and dance, which to me can convey emotion and pull at the heart strings in ways mere words cannot. That for me is the real magic behind “Allegiance.”
You have been most vocal about the incoming administration’s proposed plan to register Americans of Muslim descent, especially as they have drawn “precedent” for such action from WWII Japanese-American internment. Is it unthinkable that such positions are being proposed in mainstream politics, or is this undercurrent of bigotry something you always knew was part of the American consciousness?
My father once told me – and I’ll never forget his words – that America is a people’s democracy, as great as the people of this nation can be, but also as fallible. Those words ring true today. Lurking beneath the peaceful and civil nature of our American society are dark forces that, if stirred and egged on, can turn upon any group in a heartbeat. It is because of this danger that I have made it my life’s mission to tell our story, so that other vulnerable communities do not fall victim to fear-mongering, demagoguery and the failure of political leadership.
You are as known now as much for your social activism as you are for your performing career, but “Allegiance” finds you bringing those two worlds together. It must be very gratifying to find a project that fulfills both instincts at this point in your career.
There is nothing more gratifying than to pair my work as an artist and my work as an activist into this single, vital legacy project. Through the film, in which we captured a live performance of the show on Broadway, I am thrilled that the story will be continued to be told and seen by tens of thousands if not millions one day. I hope especially that classrooms will take the time on Remembrance Day each year, February 19 – the day FDR ordered us evacuated from our homes – to show the film to students so that new generations will have the benefit of history to guide them as they come of age to lead our nation.
“Allegiance” is showing at the Cinemagic theaters in South Portland and Saco on Tuesday. For tickets and details, visit the “Allegiance” website at allegiancemusical.com.