‘Allegiance’ and the Persistence of Little Tokyo

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Scott Watanabe as Tatsuo Kimura, George Takei as Ojii-chan, Jordan Goodsell as Hakujin, Elena Wang as Kei Kimura, and Ethan Le Phong as Sammy Kimura in the Los Angeles premiere of Allegiance starring George Takei at the Aratani Theatre, co-produced by East West Players and Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. (Photo by Michael Lamont)

Last opportunity to see the musical as it finishes its Los Angeles run this weekend.

Published on March 29, 2018

By GWEN MURANAKA

RAFU SENIOR EDITOR

“How many times have you seen it?” Alison de la Cruz, “Allegiance” executive producer, asked me brightly as I walked through the lobby of the Aratani Theatre.

“Allegiance” is finishing its Little Tokyo run this weekend and if you haven’t seen it yet, this might be a good time to call the Aratani box office. Since 2012, the musical has gone from San Diego to Broadway and somehow ended up here where it was meant to be, in the heart of a changing, vibrant J-Town.

Judging by Alison’s question, a lot of JAs are coming more than once to experience this collective moment of theater. It was wonderful to feel the energy and excitement in the Aratani: to hear the orchestra playing and the murmurings of a large audience.

It’s also remarkable to think that just blocks from the JACCC, Japanese American families assembled in 1942 to be sent to concentration camps. The fact that they returned to Little Tokyo, to rebuild their lives in this downtown neighborhood, is part of the narrative that brings us to the Los Angeles production of “Allegiance.”

While I had seen the film version, shown in movie theaters last February, I really wanted to experience the stage version with my dad. We saw it last Saturday with a large group that included his beloved companion Lois and her extended family, many who had flown in from out of town especially to see the show.

During World War II, Dad would have been a few years younger than Sam, the protagonist, played as a brash, young man by Ethan Le Phong and as a gruff senior by George Takei. Afterwards, I asked if he had to answer the loyalty questionnaire, a major plot point in “Allegiance,” and he said, “No.” He was too young. However he shared a story I had never heard, of a classmate who signed up for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and died in combat.

Elena Wang as Kei Kimura performs “Higher.” (Photo by Michael Lamont)

Dad appreciated seeing the experiences of his youth portrayed onstage. The Kimuras are a farming family in Central California before the war and the relationship between brother Sam and sister Kei (Elena Wang) are at the heart of the drama. Their lives are upended on Dec. 7, 1941 with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The staging cleverly uses images projected onto the proscenium to show the starkness of Santa Anita or the vistas of Heart Mountain. If there is anything lasting from production of “Allegiance” it is the beautifully, upgraded Aratani Theatre, and the collaboration between East West Players and JACCC. Hopefully this isn’t the last time these two Little Tokyo organizations work together on a project.

I wonder how a non-Japanese American audience sees “Allegiance,” and whether its depiction of the wartime incarceration is easy to follow if your family wasn’t caught up in it. But as we drove into downtown, folks were walking the streets, carrying signs after participating in the March For Our Lives protest, the anti-gun rally organized by kids from Parkland, Fla.

“Resist” — a song performed by Heart Mountain resister Frankie (Eymard Cabling) and company — somehow speaks to the moment we are experiencing now in America.

Likewise, “Gaman” — sung beautifully by Wang — captured feelings of longing for a home that no longer exists. I couldn’t help but think of immigrants living in a country that is growing increasingly hostile to foreigners.

George Takei as Ojii-chan shares a light moment with Kei and Frankie (Eymard Cabling). (Photo by Michael Lamont)

That there is an “Allegiance” musical is ultimately a tribute to the persistence of George Takei, who like my dad, was incarcerated at Rohwer, Ark. Without him, there is no way the musical could have reached such a wide audience. He plays two roles: the aged patriarch Ojii-chan during World War II, and the older Sam, who still fits the U.S. Army uniform he wore so many decades earlier.

There is something poignant about seeing celebrities age. To recall that Takei was once the young Mr. Sulu and to see him now — still handsome at 80 years old — is to be confronted with our own mortality.

It was important to bring “Allegiance” to Little Tokyo. When Takei married Brad Altman back in got married in 2008, to the wider community, it was a powerful statement about gay rights. But he was also making a statement about the importance of Little Tokyo. The couple exchanged vows in the Japanese American National Museum’s Democracy Center and they chose local vendors such as Fugetsu-do and Toyo Miyatake, as well as the photographers here at The Rafu.

George and Brad Takei, and Elena Wang joined in a family group photo after the performance on March 24.

There is always talk about what is going to happen to Little Tokyo and the Japanese American community. Whether it can survive rapid gentrification, an aging population or whatever the latest threat may be. But I think a community willing to take on big challenges — whether it’s building a gymnasium or lobbying at City Hall, or staging a Broadway musical — is a community that should never be counted out.

“Allegiance” concludes its run at the Aratani Theatre on Sunday, April 1. More information at (213) 680-3700 or allegiancemusical.com/LA.

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