By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
SAN DIEGO — The past month has been hectic but gratifying for George Takei, one of the creative forces behind the new musical “Allegiance,” now playing at The Old Globe in San Diego’s Balboa Park.
Previews started Sept. 7 and opening night was Sept. 19. Originally set to close on Oct. 21, the play has been extended until Oct. 28.
Takei, known for such TV shows as “Star Trek,” “Heroes” and “Supah Ninjas,” developed the Broadway-bound “Allegiance” with composer-lyricist Jay Kuo and co-librettists Lorenzo Thione and Marc Acito, with Stafford Arima directing.
The play is bookended by scenes set in the present, with Takei playing 442nd veteran Sam Kimura. Most of the story focuses on young Sammy (Telly Leung), who is interned at Heart Mountain along with his sister Kei (Lea Salonga), his father Tatsuo (Paul Nakauchi) and Ojii-san (Takei).
Tatsuo answers “no-no” to the loyalty questionnaire and is sent to Tule Lake. Sammy, influenced by JACL leader Mike Masaoka (Paolo Montalban), joins the Army to prove his loyalty while Kei falls in love with draft resister Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), who is loosely based on the late Frank Emi.
Because of a confrontation after he returns home from war, Sammy doesn’t speak to his sister for 60 years — then learns she has passed away.
“Every performance has ended with a standing ovation, and our weekends have been either sold out or practical sell-outs,” Takei said in a phone interview. “The reception has been fantastic. The local reviews have all been raves. We feel very welcome.”
While the audience at a recent Sunday matinee was mostly Caucasian, Takei noted that many Japanese Americans have come to see the show, as well as Filipino Americans and others who are fans of Salonga, known for such musicals as “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables” and the animated films “Aladdin” and “Mulan.”
“The Japanese Americans all had very moving stories to share,” Takei said. “I go out on the plaza after each performance to sign autographs and pose for photos, and Japanese American families have shared with me deeply emotional and tear-filled stories.”
One audience member told Takei that the story told on stage paralleled her family’s experiences with the loyalty questionnaire. “Her father went from Rohwer and fought with the 442nd. Her father’s two brothers and her grandfather were sent to Heart Mountain … They were ‘no-nos’ and were sent to Tule Lake, so there was a split between her father and his two brothers, an intensely emotional split. After the war, the grandfather chose to go to Japan and the two brothers went with him … Her father and her two uncles were split for 50 years.
“Her uncles married Japanese women, but they eventually came back to California … Her father decided to go to the Tule Lake Pilgrimage because his family had been incarcerated there, and just by chance that was the same pilgrimage that his two estranged brothers attended. Over the weekend they shared the pain of estrangement and how both sides suffered and felt so isolated from each other. A lot of tears were shared …
“Her father passed away last year and on his deathbed, he said he lost his family at Tule Lake and found his family at Tule Lake.”
People have come from as far away as Seattle, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. to see the show, one person is coming from Japan this weekend, and a group of 80 from the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles will attend the Oct. 21 matinee performance, Takei reported.
For those unable to make the trip to San Diego, he promised, “We’ll eventually come to Los Angeles. We hope to have a nice long run in New York. After the New York run, we’re hoping we get a London production, a Toronto production … a Tokyo production as well, and a road company organized throughout the U.S.”
Having been interned as a child, Takei has used his fame as an avenue to educate the public about the camps. When his autobiography, “To the Stars,” was published in 1994, “I did a national book tour and noticed that east of the Rockies, people that seemed well-informed and educated told me they had no idea something like this happened,” he recalled. “There are a lot of people that don’t know anything about the internment.”
Many of the non-Nikkei audience members he has met knew about the internment but knew little about it, and the same is true of some Nikkei, Takei said. “Young Japanese Americans say they didn’t know about the loyalty questionnaire or how intensely fractured the Japanese American community became, so I think it’s starting a lot of conversations …
“As a matter of fact, my nephew brought his two kids … to a matinee performance. They came from L.A. It was the kids that initiated the conversation on the internment … They knew that their parents, aunties, uncles grandpa and grandma were in camp, but they didn’t know the details because they didn’t talk about it. That’s the legacy that we have. The generation that experienced internment did not talk about it because it was such a painful and shameful experience.”
The musical has gone through a long development process, Takei said. “The very first reading was held at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum at JANM. That was four years ago. There have been a half-dozen different versions of the play …
“Once we got The Old Globe, the preview period was still a work in progress. We were getting rewrites or cuts in the morning. Wonderful songs were dropped. New songs were added. We were performing them for a paying audience in the evening. The preview process was very arduous and traumatic.”
Takei, who sings with the ensemble and has one song of his own, titled “Ishi Kara Ishi,” can attest to the difficulty of having to “un-memorize lyrics to a song— you’ve got the melody memorized, but they’re changing the words … We actors have been going through the hell of previews.”
“Then, on opening night, the show is frozen,” he continued. “No more cuts and no more rewrites. But when we go to New York we’ll have more development and, during the preview period, a lot of tweaks being made. Once it opens in New York, that is going to be the final published version of ‘Allegiance.’”
Once the process is complete, a CD will be released and the script will be available for renting by colleges and other theater companies to produce.
The show is expected to open on Broadway in late April or early May, according to Takei, “depending on what theater is available — we don’t want it to be too big.” The Old Globe has 620 seats and the “Allegiance” crew would like 1,000 to 1,200 seats in New York.
Takei took issue with two critiques — one from the Japanese American Veterans Association and the other from JACL members in Sacramento — saying that the play portrays JACL (Masaoka in particular) and Nisei soldiers in a negative light. The pieces were published in The Rafu Shimpo and other Nikkei newspapers.
He stressed that the articles were not based on the current version of the show but on “a videotape of a workshop that we had in New York last summer. We used it for potential investors … That was a private screening of a work in progress. We told them this is constantly being rewritten.”
Describing the letters as “unfortunate,” “irresponsible,” “uncalled for” and “jumping the gun,” Takei commented, “It’s like grading a student before the test is given … It’s like saying, ‘That restaurant stinks’ without having tasted their food.” While there was no guarantee that they would like “Allegiance,” he said, he urged the letter-writers to see it before publishing anything.
Takei added, “Priscilla Ouchida came to the opening here. She said, ‘Thank you for doing this play. It’s going to start a lot of conversations going.’ The new head of JACL was complimentary.” (Ouchida is JACL’s executive director.)
“The Japanese Americans who have come to see the play, they are moved,” he reiterated. “In fact, some of them sit close to the stage, like the first, second, third row. When we’re taking curtain calls, I can see them. Last (Sunday) night, a Japanese American gentleman was standing there with a handkerchief in his hand, wiping his face, standing and applauding.” Takei joked that there are so many tears that “we have to drain the theater every night.”
Getting Out the Vote
While the musical is taking up a huge chunk of his time, Takei continues to be a presence on Facebook and Twitter, posting and tweeting jokes and commentary daily; is promoting his new memoir, “Oh Myyy!,” which is only available as an e-book; and is slated to appear as himself on “The New Normal,” a new NBC siitcom about a gay couple that wants to raise a child.
With the election approaching, he has also done a get-out-the-vote video in which he recalls that he and his family were interned 70 years ago “simply because we happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor.” While Asian Americans have made “undreamed-of advances” in politics, he says, “we have … low voter registration. We’ve got to be involved in the electoral process … You should be in there participating, protecting our interests, and in so doing, making our democracy a truer democracy.” He goes on to say that President Obama, who grew up in Hawaii and has a sister who is half Asian, “understands and loves our community.”
A proponent of marriage equality — he and his husband Brad were able to get married before the passage of Proposition 8, which limits marriage to heterosexual couples — Takei cites the example of the internment to gain greater understanding of LGBT issues in the Japanese American community.
“I use the metaphor of the very real barbed-wire fences that kept us incarcerated,” he said. “There is still another group of Americans incarcerated by legalistic barbed-wire fences that separate the LGBT community from equality with the rest of America. Japanese Americans are beginning to understand the similarity of these civil rights issues.”