By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor-in-Chief
The Japanese American National Museum is a special place for George Takei. He has served as chairman of the JANM Board of Trustees, and in 2008 he married his husband Brad Altman in the Tateuchi Democracy Center.
When the Rago Auction controversy erupted, Takei thought of one place where the artifacts would be preserved and showcased.
“I said it belongs in a museum that is recognized by the museum community as a preeminent institution for the telling of the story of the Japanese American experience, and that’s the Japanese American National Museum,” Takei said in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo.
“JANM’s complete mission is to tell that story, the artifacts help us tell that story. This is the place where it will be most exhibited, most shared, most effectively shared with a large audience.”
Takei was honored May 2 by JANM with its Distinguished Medal of Honor for lifetime achievement and public service, becoming only the fifth individual to receive the honor. The medal is a recognition of Takei’s status as a cultural icon and his community activism.
Former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta was also announced as the museum’s new chairman, succeeding Gordon Yamate.
Takei’s role in halting the auction was another example of the actor using his fame for a good cause. He contacted David Rago when outrage started to build over the auction of 450 artifacts collected by folk arts advocate Allen Eaton from the World War II Japanese American concentration camps.
“The outrage started to grow and grow and I saw the auction as something where somebody could come and sweep in and buy up the artifacts and they could disappear into a private collection for God knows how long,” he said.
Initially Takei had read the New York Times article on the upcoming auction and thought about bidding on a watercolor painting by Heart Mountain internee Estelle Ishigo.
“I thought I’d participate in the auction and donate it to (JANM). Then I got an email that asked me to sign a petition,” Takei said. “I thought that was not the way to go. Because the auction was not illegal, and the ownership wasn’t dishonest, it was inherited.”
During his discussion with Rago, Takei said the auction house owner was a “decent guy” who was stung by the criticism of the online auction.
“I told him this (criticism) is legitimate, these are artifacts created under enormously stressful conditions and still the human spirit for artistic expression is another way of defining resistance,” Takei said.
Dr. Greg Kimura, JANM president and CEO, announced that the museum had acquired the camp artifacts at the gala. Takei said that museum has already received two Ishigo paintings. At Takei’s invitation, Rago attended a reception at JANM on April 30 for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Takei he was glad to be able to help stop the auction.
“David Rago was aware of my notoriety so I had that access to him that maybe ‘Joe Tanaka’ would not, so if I’m blessed with that additional ability to open doors, I’m more than happy to play advocate,” he said.
“Allegiance” Crowdfunding Campaign
Another project dear to Takei’s heart is “Allegiance,” the camp-themed musical that is headed to Broadway in the fall. Previews are set to begin on Oct. 6 at the Longacre Theatre. The play will open on Nov. 8.
“We’re going into rehearsals in August. We did it in San Diego and broke attendance and box office records, so we’re very excited about debuting on the biggest, most important stage in America, Broadway,” Takei said.
Takei has set up a crowdfunding campaign, called George Takei’s Legacy Project, to raise $500,000 for the staging of the musical, a multigenerational Japanese American story set during World War II.
“It’s a dollar campaign and we’ve raised $400,000 so far, so it’s just a little bit more,” Takei said.
He appealed to Rafu readers to support the campaign to help bring “Allegiance” to the Broadway stage.
“A dollar, a senior citizen in [Little] Tokyo Towers can spare a dollar,” he said.
The inspiration for the fundraising campaign was newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who started a dollar campaign urging the public to raise funds for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Pulitzer raised $100,000 for the pedestal in less than six months.
“‘Allegiance’ is a $13 million project, it’s a daunting figure but we will be able to reach it, we are determined to reach it,” Takei said. “I’m doing something no smart actor does, they tell you, ‘Don’t invest in your own project.’ Well, I’m a dumb actor.”
Takei said that the play has been refined since its staging at San Diego’s Old Globe in 2012.
“We’ve tweaked it even more and it’s even a better production,” Takei stated.
Some Japanese Americans have criticized the musical for its portrayal of JACL leader Mike Masaoka. Takei said that Masaoka’s inclusion in “Allegiance” is important because of his central role he played at the time as the leader of the Japanese American Citizens League.
“You don’t talk about the Civil War without mentioning Abraham Lincoln. People say the characters are fictional, why not fictionalize Mike Masaoka? Well, the characters might be fictional, but you can’t fictionalize Abraham Lincoln, he is a pivotal character, an important character, as is Mike Masaoka,” Takei said.
“It will be a faithful but also empathetic characterization, because he’s a human being too. That’s where the drama is. We’re talking about the challenge, the crisis and the anguish and how we responded to that, and his was one response.”
For information on George Takei’s Legacy Project, visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/george-takei-s-legacy-project#home
— Additional reporting by MIA NAKAJI MONNIER