So I went and saw Allegiance. This is a musical show about the internment of over a hundred thousand Japanese-American citizens and legal immigrants who were forced from their homes by armed soldiers soon after Pearl Harbor, told to take only what they could carry, and confined for four years in camps across the western part of the country. Just the thing to inspire choruses, comic turns, and dance numbers, right?
Right. It worked.
If you have not come across it before, this production, which premiered in 2015 and had a five-month run on Broadway, was the brainchild of George Takei, the onetime Mister Sulu and modern-day social activist who may well be the oldest Twitter addict in existence. (Favorite alltime quote: “Back when I was young, it was illegal for me to marry a white woman, and now I’m married to a white dude.” Bears on the book of the musical. We’ll get back to that.) Takei’s family was one of those taken out of their houses and loaded onto a bus — poignantly, he describes his mother lugging a sewing machine because she was sure they’d need to mend their clothing — and he lived and went to school in the camp till he was nine and the bomb ended the war and everyone got a bus ticket and $25 to go out and start life anew. Yeah. (Real reparations were finally paid during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.)
John Tateishi says the experience was both humiliating and disorienting. “We came out of these camps with a sense of shame and guilt, of having been considered betrayers of our country.” He says that after the war most families never spoke about it. “There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way.”
But decades later and inspired by the civil rights movement, the Japanese American Citizens League launched a contentious campaign for redress. It divided the community along generational lines. (Transcript from NPR’s All Things Considered, August 2013)
In Allegiance — not directly based on Takei’s family experience, but on the kinds of experiences that happened all around them — there’s every sort of reaction to the internment, from a determination to prove loyalty by serving in uniform, to explicit refusal to sign loyalty oaths. Some internees keep their heads down; others stage protests. There’s — fairly predictably — romantic attraction between an internee and one of the camp personnel, double jeopardy since even outside the camp they couldn’t have legally married at the time. And a grandfather, played by Takei himself — who also takes the part of the family’s estranged son fifty years on — simply kneels down on the packed soil of mountainous Wyoming and coaxes vegetables out of it. It is worth the whole production to see how much fun Takei had playing slightly dotty old Ojii-san (whose origami skills come in handy when the loyalty questionnaires make their appearance). I was there on Crispin’s Day when all Takei ever got to do on camera was say “Aye aye, Captain” (except for that memorable time he channeled D’Artagnan stripped tastily to the waist), so watching him turn in two disparate and nuanced performances in the same show at the age of nearly eighty was slightly exhilarating.
It’s a musical show, so I expected the broad brush, and historians have lodged their complaints about ratcheting-up of the conflicts between internees and American soldiers, while I squirmed over a too-contrived fatal accident. And no one is ever going to nominate the fairly bland and derivative score for a Tony (though I’m still shivering over the Japanese-language chorus that arises from a stage foxed with light and dark at the moment the war is finally ended). But the music occasionally flashed — at the moments when irony and bitterness were uppermost, the breath of Kurt Weill animated the score:
Allegiance isn’t generally available yet, though this was a high quality recording of a live performance. My guess, they are hoping to see if it can be revived or go on the road before they make it too easy for someone to buy a video. I only knew it was going to be in the theater for one afternoon because I follow Takei and his Twitter feed alerted me that show was being rebroadcast on the anniversary of the Presidential order that established the camps, now observed as a day of remembrance. (When I tweeted back “got our tickets!” a little heart promptly appeared on my timeline: “George Takei liked your Tweet.” I’ll never wash my smartphone again.)
It was more than remembrance; it was a touch of verb. sap. People can fight and shed blood for their country, while others dig in their heels and resist when they see their country doing the wrong thing, can differ so much about what’s right that they go through life without ever speaking again, and they can all still be loyal Americans. I hope we can keep that in mind going forward.*
*It occurred to me while clocking mileage that I ought to clarify that last. I am not referring to people who “differ” because they somehow have a problem with inclusiveness, fairness, due process under law, and other forms of common decency, some of them enshrined in the Constitution, some of them now matters of law. America at its best has always aspired to fairness and fraternity, even if it has taken a long time to realize even part of that ambition. I have yet to decide what to call people who, rather than argue about how best to defend them, actually scorn the ideals embedded in the Bill Of Rights, while waving American flags. 😦