By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Always on the go, actor/activist George Takei didn’t have a chance to see the exhibition about his life until the press preview last Saturday at the Japanese American National Museum.
“New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei,” which opened March 12 and runs through Aug. 20, was curated by author, journalist and cultural critic Jeff Yang, drawing from a vast collection donated to JANM last year by George and Brad Takei.
Divided into five sections, the exhibition explores Takei’s incarceration with his family during World War II; his Hollywood career, including his iconic role in “Star Trek”; his history of civic engagement, including his advocacy for Japanese Americans and the LGBTQ community; the Broadway musical “Allegiance,” which educated the public about the camps; and his current status as pop culture icon and social media celebrity.
Takei, who turns 80 next month, greeted reporters while seated in a reproduction of the chair he used in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991), in which Capt. Hikaru Sulu commanded the USS Excelsior. (The actual chair couldn’t be located, so a replica was made.)
“I was in New York. I’ve been in rehearsals for Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s masterpiece ‘Pacific Overtures,’ which has been exciting,” he said. “We arrived last night, we’re flying back tomorrow. So I’ve not seen the exhibit … I’m looking forward to it both with eagerness and a little trepidation. But I feel so honored to be in this position, sitting in this chair.”
Speaking as past chair of JANM’s Board of Trustees, Takei said, “This is something that I really didn’t expect. From the beginning when I started serving here, one of the subjects that I was lobbying for was an exhibit on the image of Asians and Asian Americans in the media. That has been the heritage or legacy or burden that we have to carry. It’s been one-dimensional, unattractive characters, and when there were interesting, humanized [Asian] characters, they were usually played by non-Asians …
“I thought that was an important subject for a museum exhibit and I was continuously lobbying the curators and the museum president and all the powers that be … It didn’t happen … but here I am in this very humbling position of having that exhibit built around me.”
Takei, a native Angeleno, was pleased that the exhibition includes his family history. He noted that his mother was born in Sacramento and his father was born in Japan and raised in San Francisco. “He fancied himself an American … [but]he could not get naturalized citizenship because Asian immigrants were the only ones denied naturalization.”
He added that his maternal grandfather, unable to buy land for farming because he was a Japanese immigrant, “bought the land in the name of his first-born son, who by virtue of his birth here was a citizen … That’s the kind of history we have, and of course as his grandson I had different kinds of challenges … Each one of those challenges has been something that I took as a way of defining who we are as Americans …
“The internment experience was a very American experience … The importance of that chapter is an American lesson … Clearly, it was not learned, as we are discovering again in our time.”
While attending UCLA, Takei appeared on stage in a student production and was spotted by a producer who cast him in his first feature film, “Ice Palace” (1960), starring Richard Burton. Another big break came when Takei met the creator of “Star Trek.”
“Gene Roddenberry … used science fiction as a metaphor for issues of the time,” Takei recalled. “The ’60s was a turbulent time — the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, which was tearing this country apart … Television at that time wasn’t reflective of that … The starship Enterprise was a metaphor for starship Earth, and he said the strength of this starship lay in its diversity, all the various people … from different parts of this planet, different backgrounds, different races, different faiths, all coming together and working in concert as a team.
“It was an exciting message and it was something I embraced. So my life has been the absorption of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.”
Takei explained his involvement in civic affairs, which included an unsuccessful run for Los Angeles City Council in 1973 and serving on the board of the Southern California Rapid Transit District as an appointee of Mayor Tom Bradley. “My father was the one who felt that activism was an important part of American democracy. It’s a people’s democracy, it’s a participatory democracy … People are fallible human beings that can make mistakes, but people, he also pointed out, can do extraordinary things …
“He pointed to people like our Founding Fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, who established this country and its ideals and its values, but they also kept other humans as slaves, so our nobility and our fallibility is … woven into the fabric of a people’s democracy. So it’s very important that we participate.”
Takei’s father had him work on the campaign of Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat who ran twice for president in the 1950s. “We didn’t succeed, but my father said in a people’s democracy you keep on keeping on … fall down seven times and get up eight. That more or less has defined my life … to participate actively in our democracy and to try to make our democracy a better, truer democracy.”
Encounter with Trump
Takei has been a frequent critic of President Trump, but the two were on speaking terms when the actor was a contestant on NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2012. A poster from the show, signed by all of that season’s participants, is part of the exhibition.
“We had a press conference to promote the show and I wanted to get him on record,” Takei remembered. “He was known to have publicly said he’s against marriage equality. So near the end of that press conference, I said, ‘Mr. Trump, I’d like to host you to lunch to discuss marriage equality.’ I fully expected him to demur … but he surprised me. He said, ‘You know, George, I might learn something. Yeah, okay, you’re on. Have your people arrange it with my people.’
“It took a long time, about three or four months, but we finally got together … He came late. He rushed in and said, ‘George, you know what? I was at a gay wedding and it was beautiful. You gays do things with such style.’ Again, stereotyped thinking. I said, ‘Oh, you go to your gay friends’ weddings? That’s wonderful. So why are you opposed to marriage equality?’
“He said, ‘Well, I believe in traditional marriage.’ I said, ‘What I consider traditional marriage is two people who love each other, who commit to each other, through sickness and health … and they become genuine partners, helpmates and sometimes supporters of each other’ … He said, ‘No no no, it’s a man and a woman.’ I said, ‘No, because I know so many men and women who get divorced.’
“After I said that I was mindful of the fact that he’s on his third marriage, and he was famously unfaithful. I’m trying to win him over, so I kind of reined myself in. I said, ‘No, it’s people who stay together because of love. That’s a true marriage.’ I said, ‘Besides that, for you as a businessman it would be a great asset … LGBT people would love to come … to get married in New York … They’ll stay in your hotels, they’ll eat at your restaurants, they may get married in one of your banquet rooms. It’ll be a tremendous good business deal for you to support marriage equality as well as doing a good thing’ …
“He said, ‘No, I believe in traditional marriage.’ So after a whole lunch we agreed to disagree.”
While Takei doesn’t know if he will ever make a public appearance with Trump again, he said, “I may try that. He’s got layers of people protecting him, but I just recently had a petition to bring support to the Muslim American community, to express solidarity. We got 320,000 signatures in a month and I presented it to the president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. I might try to get that introduced to Donald Trump, see whether it will broaden his thinking a little bit with the Muslim community.”
In “Pacific Overtures,” which opens April 5, Takei will play the Reciter, the role that Mako played when the musical opened on Broadway in 1976. But Takei stressed that the new show won’t be at all like the original:
“John Doyle, the director, is famous for revolutionizing. He’s done all the Stephen Sondheim musicals. He did a production of ‘Company’ with the actors playing instruments on stage instead of the orchestra … There was a production of ‘Sweeney Todd’ that he did that was the most gruesome, grotesque production ever. So each one of his productions has been different.”
Regarding “Allegiance,” which marked Takei’s Broadway debut, he said, “We are planning on doing a revival … maybe next year, and we may do it in collaboration with a local theater company.”
Asked if he will reprise his roles as Ojiichan and the older Sam Kimura, he answered, “I’m being very coy because there are no contracts signed, nothing on paper, just discussions. So we’ll see how that happens when it happens.”
“George’s History Is the Lens”
Wendy Shiba, vice chair of the JANM Board of Trustees, noted, “This exhibition has been well over two years in the making. On a broader level, the museum intends to look at several Asian Americans who have made their mark in entertainment and media. That will be the guiding idea for a series of exhibitions here, and it seemed to make perfect sense that we start with George …
“George and his husband Brad started talking with the museum about donating a treasure trove of materials … George and Brad have been diligent and meticulous about saving these items, keeping track of them, caring for them. The donation of the collection came to fruition last fall, and today the George and Brad Takei Collection is now the museum’s largest collection about any single individual.
“We are honored to be the repository for this collection, not because of its size … but because of its breadth and depth. The items in the collection … are of course representative of one individual, but they are more than that. They are representative and emblematic of the fabric of America as a whole, its cultural identity, political outlook, social mores and media landscape. So in ‘New Frontiers,’ George’s history is the lens through which our visitors will view American history, and we think that’s really special.”
Curator Jeff Yang, who said he regards Takei as a hero and a friend, recalled, “When I was first asked to curate this exhibition … I had no idea the amount of work and care that would be required to fully capture the immense and incredible and multifaceted reality that is George’s journey.”
Two items provided inspiration, Yang said. One was “an artifact that George’s father brought back from the swamps of Arkansas after incarceration at Rohwer. He brought back this piece of nondescript wood, he oiled it, stripped the outer bark off it, polished it, and it became this enigmatic but almost melancholic work of art. People would comment on it and say it’s very pretty, but only those who knew the full story of where it came from … could understand the reality behind this artifact.
“That led me to thinking this notion of peeling back layers of understanding, the truth behind the truth.”
The other item was a staff that Takei used when he climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji, “each step along the way receiving a stamp, a burned emblem into the staff, to show you passed through another layer. That made me realize that was the story … Somebody who perhaps has been best known for traversing the stars and crossing frontiers, that journey of going through stations in life, each one a strange new world, each one a new existence and dimension — that is George’s life.”
Visitors are given a “passport” that they can stamp as they visit each station of the exhibition.
The words heard at the opening of each “Star Trek” episode, such as “the final frontier,” “to explore strange new worlds” and “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” are used throughout the exhibition, which ends with “the world we live in now, where he has become not just a celebrity but a pundit, influencer, a digital superstar who with the click of a few buttons can change minds, lift consciousness and provoke laughter,” Yang explained.
Takei had one thing to add to Yang’s presentation: “I notice that when you were talking about my life, you kept talking in the past tense. I’m still here … I’m not history yet. We’ve got much further to go.”
JANM is located at 100 N. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo. Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday from 12 to 8 p.m. Closed Monday. Admission: $10 adults, $6 seniors (62 and over) and students with ID and youth (6-17), free for children under 5 and JANM members. Free general admission every Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. and every third Thursday of the month. Info: (213) 625-0414, www.janm.org
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)