Anticipation is building for “Allegiance,” a Broadway musical about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans.
Based on the experiences of actor/activist George Takei’s family, the show begins previews on Oct. 6 at the Longacre Theatre in New York, followed by opening night on Nov. 8.
For Los Angeles-based actor Greg Watanabe, who has been cast as wartime JACL leader Mike Masaoka, this will be his first Broadway show, his first musical, and his first appearance in “Allegiance,” which had a successful run at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2012 with Paolo Montalban as Masaoka.
Returning for the Broadway production are Takei as Ojii-san and Sam Kimura; Lea Salonga as Kei Kimura; Telly Leung as Sammy Kimura; and Michael K. Lee as Frankie Suzuki. New additions include Katie Rose Clarke as Hannah Campbell and Christopheren Nomura as Tatsuo Kimura.
The Kimura family is torn apart by the infamous loyalty questionnaire that the government imposed on the internees. Leung and Takei play the same character as a young man during the war and as a veteran who has not spoken to his sister Kei in decades.
“Allegiance” has a book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, inspired by Takei’s incarceration as a child at the Rohwer and Tule Lake camps, and a score by Kuo. Stafford Arima returns as director.
Watanabe, who has two Off-Broadway credits, Philip Gotanda’s “The Ballad of Yachiyo” and David Henry Hwang’s “Golden Child,” has seen some of his castmates perform, but has not worked with them before.
“When I heard they were holding auditions for the Broadway production, and that the Mike Masaoka character was a non-singing role, I was eager to audition,” Watanabe recalled. “I only saw a video of the [San Diego] production; I was most struck with how different the script was, especially the Masaoka role. In both versions, and the current script continues to change as we rehearse, I’m struck by the amount of information there is about the camps. Honestly, I never thought there’d be a Broadway musical about the Japanese American experience, let alone starring Asians and Asian Americans.”
When he got the role, he did as much research as he could about Masaoka, the only real-life character in the play. “I feel fortunate that I know so many folks who know so much about the period, and I’ve absorbed information from having worked on other projects that dealt with the subject matter. I had the opportunity to speak with Mark Masaoka, his nephew, about Mike. I also had dinner with Leslie Ishii, whose grandfather was one of the founders of the JACL, and who knew Mike. It was all very informative.”
During the San Diego run, some in the Japanese American community, including JACL members and Masaoka’s relatives, complained that Masaoka seemed to be the bad guy in the story. Masaoka, who died in 1991, has been both praised and condemned for his advocacy of cooperation with the authorities during the internment, which put him at odds with draft resisters and others who challenged the government’s actions, and was instrumental in the creation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Watanabe said that the depiction of Masaoka is quite different now. “I feel like the production team has listened carefully to feedback from community folks and made great adjustments. I think having the character speak words drawn from Masaoka’s writings and speeches, as well as having him not sing, makes the character more biographical and less figurative and abstracted.”
Watanabe sees “Allegiance” as a new vehicle to educate the public. “There’s a lot of information out there — writings, documentaries, poetry, art, plays, movies, museum exhibits, websites — with first-hand accounts of Japanese Americans who experienced the internment, who fought in the 100th/442nd, 522nd, MIS. But there’s always room for more. And the Broadway musical crowd might find themselves learning about something they’ve never heard of.”
The musical resonates with him on a personal level as well. “My father’s side was at Heart Mountain, where the play is set. My father was conceived in camp, but they got work-release in Colorado, so he was born there. He is much younger than his siblings; they were teenagers in camp. My uncle was in the 442nd and was training as a replacement when the war ended.
“They were living in L.A. when they were incarcerated. They were lucky that there were neighbors and business partners to take care of their house and dry-cleaning business.”
Watanabe is also known for his work with the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, an Asian American sketch comedy group that started out in the Bay Area and now reaches a wider audience through YouTube videos, taking on topics like stereotypes and immigration.
Although he is busy with rehearsals, “I actually just recorded a voiceover for a new 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors video,” Watanabe said. “Michael [Chih-Ming Hornbuckle] and I continue to correspond and discuss ideas and ways to keep producing content.”
His film work includes “Only the Brave,” Lane Nishikawa’s drama about the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. “The spirit of making that film, telling the stories of those soldiers and their families, was very meaningful to me,” Watanabe said.
His regional theater credits include “The Summer Moon” at A Contemporary Theater; “The Happy Ones” at South Coast Repertory Theater, for which he received an L.A. Drama Critics Circle nomination; “Extraordinary Chambers” at the Geffen Playhouse, for which he received an Ovation nomination; and Hwang’s “Yellow Face” at the Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, for which he received a San Diego Theater Critics Circle nomination.
He has fond memories of the late Warren Kubota’s “Webster Street Blues,” set in San Francisco Japantown during the 1970s, “because it was my first play with the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco and was the beginning of a long education about Japanese American and Asian American identity.”
“No-No Boy,” a play adapted by Ken Narasaki from John Okada’s novel about the lingering impact of decisions that were made in the camps, was “another labor of love and one of the many unexplored and untold stories of the Japanese American experience,” Watanabe said.
And, of course, he has added “Allegiance” to his list of favorite plays.
For more information on the show, visit www.allegiancemusical.com. For discounted tickets, go to www.broadwaybox.com/shows/allegiance/. Tickets can also be obtained by calling (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250, or by going to the box office at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York City (Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed Sunday).