THROUGH THE FIRE: Pledging Allegiance

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By SHARON YAMATO
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Nov. 30, 2011.)

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As schoolchildren, we learned at an early age to hold our right hands over our hearts and recite those familiar words out loud, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” ending with the phrase “with liberty and justice for all.”

A paean that represents one’s loyalty to this country, the Pledge of Allegiance was a paradoxical statement for Japanese Americans during WWII, especially as depicted by photographer Dorothea Lange when she captured young Japanese American children saluting the flag just days before being stripped of their liberty and put into camps.

A preschooler when our government sent him and his family to Rohwer and then Tule Lake, actor George Takei could easily have been one of those young children she photographed. Now some 70 years later, he is pledging his allegiance once again — this time to a project that might seem almost as close to his heart as that American flag.  It’s called “Allegiance,” and it’s a Broadway musical about — believe it or not — camp!

A Broadway musical, you ask?  It could only happen if it were fueled by the passion and drive of someone as determined to share the story of what Japanese Americans went through during those dark days of our history and who is also an artist with the personality and clout to make sure it gets done right.  That person would have to be George Takei.

As he tells it, “This is a story that must be told on the biggest and most important stage in American theater — Broadway.  I consider ‘Allegiance’ to be my legacy project.”

The result is a star-studded, musically dazzling, and emotionally charged play that brings out the larger-than-life issues that every Japanese American faced during that time of complete upheaval.

Perhaps not every American citizen can relate to being deprived of one’s liberty and sent to barbed wire encampments on the basis of one’s race. To mount a production with that theme on Broadway, its producers had to meet the challenge of appealing to a broader audience.  This is a play that had to be not just about what we as Japanese Americans went through, it had to be about the very nature of allegiance — to families, to friendships, and to country.

To top it off, it could not pull any punches. It had to strike at the very heart of the JACL, the resisters, family disintegration, and many other previously taboo issues with the gusto that befits a run on the Great White Way. From all indications, it’s what makes this play impressive.

Photo by Dorothea Lange from the National Archive and Records Administration.

Appropriately, the genesis of this Broadway musical was on Broadway itself. While George and his spouse Brad were in New York sitting in the audience at the musical “In the Heights,” who happened to be next to them but the soon-to-be “Allegiance” producer Lorenzo Thione and its musical composer, Jay Kuo. Having all serendipitously met the evening before at an off-Broadway play, they struck up a conversation that eventually led to George speaking about his family being incarcerated. The rest, as they say, is history.

It has taken three years to get the play written, cast and set to premiere at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego next year.  In addition to Takei, it features the talents of such familiar faces on the Broadway stage as Lea Salonga, known for her roles in “Miss Saigon,” “Les Miserables” and “Flower Drum Song”; and Telly Leung, featured in “Rent” and “Godspell.”

All those who know Takei have probably heard about the evolution of this play from those fateful beginning days. I happened to run into him last April when he was involved in the daunting task of raising money to underwrite its production. I can only imagine what a tough sell it was, and the fact that it has arrived this far is a testament to his perseverance and passion.

You can hear it in his ardent words: “Ours is a story that I feel is important, not only for the larger American audience but especially for young Japanese Americans. So many JAs who experienced the incarceration have been either silent or shared their stories veiled in gossamer fond nostalgia. Few young people know about the courageous and principled stance, a distinctly American stance, that the resisters took – and the vilification they endured from the JA community after the war.

“Indeed, a few people east of the Rocky Mountains, who seem otherwise educated and informed, have said to me with astonishment, ‘I had no idea such camps existed here in America.’ ”

The creative team and backers of “Allegiance” are to be commended for their willingness to tackle this difficult subject matter. But as philosopher Baruch Spinoza tells us, “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” Hopefully for all those involved, the more daunting the task of mounting it on Broadway, the more rewarding the results.

For more information about how to support and learn more about this exciting new play, visit http://www.allegiancemusical.com/

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Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached via email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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1 Comment

  1. The lead into your story would be even more amazing if you mentioned the Dorothea Lange photo of Japaneses interns inside an intern camp doing the Nazi salute to the US flag. The photo is on this web page
    http://rexcurry.net/pledgesalute.html

    The early pledge salute was the nazi salute, replaced with the hand over the heart. Thus, the government schools in the US taught japanese americans to do nazi salute, even inside the camps. The Pledge of Allegiance was the origin of the stiff-armed salute adopted later by German national socialists. One way that Hitler was inspired to use the American gesture was via sports events including Harvard football via Ernst Hanfstaengl, a Harvard grad. Francis Bellamy (author of the Pledge in 1892) and Edward Bellamy were American national socialists who influenced Nazis, their rituals (robotic chanting in unison on command in government schools as in the pledge), their dogma and their symbols (e.g. the swastika used as crossed S-letters for socialism). See the discoveries of the noted historian Dr. Rex Curry.

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