Behind The Scenes - Allegiance at the Old Globe Theater
George Takei calls “Allegiance” his “legacy project.” Listen to the Star Trek actor and social media superstar talk about why he has so much invested in this new musical at the Globe about the Japanese American internment.
When Allegiance went into preview performances last month, it was still being tweaked says book writer Lorenzo Thione.
“It’s like archeology, a story is down there it lies down there and you just have to dig it up.”
“But what I have learned in sort of unearthing the story is that a lot has gone unspoken in 70 years,” says composer Jay Kuo, “The Japanese American culture would sooner bury the indignity and the shame than speak about it. That was the way that things were for decades. It wasn’t until generations had passed that people began asking more questions and these stories started to come out…”
Stories like those of George Takei who was 5 when he was taken to a Japanese American internment camp.
“My most vivid memory I think is that day when the soldiers came marching up, two soldiers came marching up our driveway they had bayoneted rifles and I remember the glinting of those bayonets. Stomped up our front porch and banged on the front door and ordered our family out.”
“We never thought in a million years that we would write a music set during the Japanese American internment,” says Kuo,”but just hearing George tell that story you know when you’re hearing a great story, you also realize this is a story, that for some reason has never been told on the big Broadway stage before.”
As a composer, Kuo writes in the language of music and always saw the story as a musical: “What music does is liberate the spoken word into the emotional and the emotions that are buried underneath that haven’t been spoken in so long are so intense that the music allows them to come out so lately I’ve been saying how could the story not be told through music.”
For Takei it was important to tell this story about when the nation faltered: ” I think we learn more from those chapters than we do from the glorious chapters that we have plenty of. And the internment story is still little known and even less understood.”
“I knew about as much about the Japanese American internment as pretty much any American, which is very little,” says Marc Acito who helped write the book for the play. Actress Lea Salonga says schools do little to inform students about the Japanese American internment.
Actress Lea Salonga says, ” I remember a lot of kids that were saying we only got one paragraph of this entire abominable experience to this entire community of people, how do you encapsulate 4-5 years of what is incarceration in an internment camp, how do you encapsulate that in a paragraph in a textbook. You can’t.”
Even Kuo, who was a civil rights attorney and worked on cases involving the internment, felt he could learn more, ” What I hadn’t experienced on a personal level were a lot of the personal stories and so I found myself drawn in by diaries and poetry and art made by the internees incredible things that need to be given voice.”
Something Takei felt was long overdue. But the tone of the play may surprise you with its humor and hope says Takei: “Yes it was torturous and harrowing at times but people still fell in love, they got married, had children, so there was joy. You can’t survive something like that with all grim suffering.”
“Because the reality is there were moments of lightness and life, just happening within the confines of barbed wire fences. A lot of the internees were farmers they were actually able to tame the ground and grow vegetables,” adds Salonga.
“It was a doom and gloom situation in which they managed to bloom where they were planted and that’s enormously inspiring,” adds Acito.
The internment was more than just a violation of civil rights. It raised a divisive series of questions within the Japanese American community about where one’s allegiance lies explains Kuo: “Does your allegiance for example lie with the country that did this to you, do you still pledge allegiance to the US even if your due process and equal rights have been violated.”
For Takei’s father the answer was a resounding yes, “My father used to say both the strength and the weakness of our democracy is in the fact that it is a people’s democracy. It can be as great as people can be but also as fallible as people are.”
Family members are also imperfect and the family at the center of the play are torn apart by more questions of allegiance sys Kuo, “Do you keep allegiance to a family when your family is fractured? Do you resist the government do you stand up even if it puts your family at risk.”
Thione states, “For lack of a better term we always called this like “the call your dad” story because it’s about that feeling of regret that can come when relationships get damaged and what can one do to really fix those and move forward.”
“This was an event that fractured the Japanese American community 70 years ago. And it’s still fractured to day and so we’re still engaging with the community on that today and that means to me that these wounds are not completely healed and all of the things that we are talking about are still relevant,” says Kuo.”
“Allegiance” is groundbreaking not only for its subject but also for providing Asian American actors an opportunity to break out of stereotypes and play multi-dimensional roles.
“Everybody who is of Asian descent doing the show, it isn’t lost on any one of us how big of an opportunity and how wonderful of a chance this is to tell a story like this one,” concludes Salonga.