Internment Camps and Other Musical Ideas
George Takei pledges ‘Allegiance’
by Neil Ellis Orts
To millions of Star Trek fans, George Takei will always be Mr. Sulu, helmsman for the Starship Enterprise. But of course, there is much more to this man who just turned 75 years old this year and continues to have a busy schedule as an actor, speaker, and political activist. He’s currently seen on Nickelodeon as the hologram sensei to a group of teen ninjas on Supah Ninjas, and he also makes personal appearances at conventions—both the political and science fiction kind.
Last month, OutSmart ran the first part of this interview as a web exclusive, wherein we spoke about his connection to and interactions with his legions of fans in anticipation of his appearance in Houston at Comicpalooza. Find it in the online OutSmart archives (Hologramps to the Next Generation ). Here, we continue our conversation about his next project, one that is of a very personal nature.
In 1942, as the United States entered World War II, Japanese Americans were rounded up and shipped to internment camps, detained for simply having Japanese heritage. George Takei was five years old when his family was taken from their Los Angeles home and sent to a camp in Arkansas. Now, he is preparing to appear in a new musical, Allegiance, created by Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, based upon this terrible page in American history.
Allegiance opens September 19 at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater and will move to Broadway in 2013.
Neil Ellis Orts: The Allegiance website tells us that Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione were inspired, in part, by the story of your years in the internment camps. How much George Takei is in the script?
George Takei: The internment story is something that I consider one of my missions in life. It’s something that has been very near and dear to my life. It was when I met Jay Kuo and learned of his extraordinary musical talent that we started developing this musical. I was very young when I was interned, from age five to age eight. I remember the barbed-wire fence, the sentry towers with machine guns aimed at us, and the searchlight that followed me when I made the midnight run to the latrine—but it’s the memory of a child. In fact, I remember thinking it was kind of nice that they lighted the way for me when I ran to the latrine at night. So my real memories are in dramatic contrast to my parents and all the adults who went through that experience.
But I think that that dark chapter of American history is more important for the larger American community because it was an egregious violation of the United States Constitution. It always shocks me when people who seem to be otherwise well-informed, intelligent people say to me, “I had no idea something like this happened in the United States.”
So I’ve been always trying to raise awareness of the incarceration of American citizens simply because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It was a blatant violation of our core legal system. When I met Jay, I thought this was the opportunity. He had a lot of information, he’s a wonderful researcher, but I gave him a lot of historic as well as personal insights, and my parents’ view. So what we did was make the son a teenager, much older than I was then. So it is a fictional story of a Japanese-American family.
I read your autobigraphy, To the Stars, in preparation for this interview, and when I came to the chapter about the loyalty questionnaire, the title of the musical, Allegiance, made sense to me. So I’m guessing the plot hinges on this questionnaire and Question 28?
That’s right. That one question, but with two ideas: will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the emperor of Japan? To an American, the assumption that we had an inborn existing loyalty to the emperor was outrageous and offensive. So if you answered no, meaning “I have no loyalty to the emperor to forswear,” you were answering “no” to the first part as well. If you answered yes, meaning “yes, I do swear my loyalty to the United States of America,” then you were fessing up that you had been loyal to the emperor, thus justifying the internment. It was a no-win question. And this after a year of imprisonment, and after having lost everything. My father used to say, “They took my business, they took our home, they took our freedom. The one thing I will not do is grovel before this government.” So yes, that is where the title, Allegiance, comes from.
I would imagine that having lived through that, and now to work on it in a dramatic context, must be very emotional for you.
It’s the first time in my acting career that I’m able to use my life experience in my professional work. As I say, I was very young then, but as a teenager, I had many discussions with my father and with others who were adults when the incarceration happened. So I relived that experience through my parents and my parents’ friends. So I’m able to use those very personal, experiential memories in my creative work, and it has already been a very soul-fulfilling experience. When we open on Broadway, that is going to be a glorious fulfillment in my life.
Do you sing in the show?
I do, two numbers. But you know, this is a work in progress and it’s going to remain a work in progress until we open on Broadway. So lines are constantly changing, scenes are constantly changing. In fact, we had one painful experience. One of the women, a wonderful actress—and I loved her, she was a wonderful person as well as turning in a wonderful performance—but we had to cut her character, which meant she was out of the play. Things like that happen. So I may be getting more numbers, I may be getting fewer numbers, but we’ll see on opening night. The San Diego performance at the Old Globe is what we call “the world premiere,” but what the New Yorkers call “the out-of-town tryouts.”
I keep seeing that this is your Broadway debut, which I find incredible, but you’ve performed in New York City before, right?
I’ve done a lot of off-Broadway, but this will be the first time I’ll be on Broadway.
Well, congratulations. That must be a huge thrill.
It really is and I can’t wait.
The music that I’ve listened to seems to fit very much in the tradition of the American musical theater. Is that intentional, to emphasize the American-ness of the prisoners?
Well, we are Americans. That’s the point. In fact, it still kind of rankles me when people call it the “Japanese internment camps.” We were imprisoned by the U.S., not the Japanese. And we are Japanese Americans who were imprisoned. “Japanese internment camp” sounds like the Japanese government kidnapped us from the United States and put us in a prison camp. It’s an American internment camp where Japanese Americans were incarcerated. And as I say, I was a child then, but our barrack was across from the mess hall, and once a month the camp authorities would let the teenagers hold a dance in the mess hall. My mother would put us to bed, but because we were right across from the mess hall, I heard Glenn Miller music wafting over from the mess hall. The 1940s songs are songs I still relate to, in spite of the fact I was still five or six or seven or eight. That was the music that defined the camp experience. That’s reflected in the musical as well.
But we also have traditional Japanese folk song. Jay is so gifted, he knows how to compose in so many musical idioms and he’s been able to create a Japanese folk song. At this point, I sing one of those Japanese folk songs, but it’s an original written by Jay Kuo. The immigrant generation, the grandparent generation, was an organic part of the community and they had their talent shows, and I remember those Japanese songs wafting over on those nights when the immigrant generation had their talent nights.
We’re about at the end of our time, but I promised my editor I’d ask one more question. Do you have any statement about President Obama finally supporting us?
Marriage equality? Well, it’s high time—we were getting a little impatient. But he’s been very consistent. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. It was very destructive and undemocratic law. And [Obama supports giving] some benefits to LGBT government workers, so this was inevitable. I think it was a very courageous move on his part to do it at this point in the reelection campaign, but I think the situation was a little forced by Vice President Biden, who made that statement on Meet the Press. We heard that Sunday morning, and I said to Brad [Altman, Takei’s husband], “Oh my, this is going to put a little pressure on the president.” So Obama more or less had to make that statement at that point, a few days after Joe Biden did.
But it’s going to be a very significant issue in this reelection campaign, because the day before he made that comment, as you know, Amendment 1 was passed in North Carolina. So that really underscores what a risky statement that was for him. But I think that statement alone is going to get a lot of decent, fair-minded Americans thinking about the issue. I know it’s a short time between now and November, but I think a good number of people will be educated and they will evolve. Hopefully enough people will evolve so the president will be reelected.
I think we’ve covered what I intended to cover and we’ve used the allotted time.
Well, it’s been good talking to you, and particularly to your publication. I hope we get more people thinking in Texas, because Texas has always been one of the more challenging states.
Oh yes. I’m a native here. I know.
Well, we all have a lot of missionary work to be doing in the wilds of Texas. We’re counting on you guys.
Well, you know, if we could get a state this size to come into the 21st century, that would be a huge thing. It’s not going to happen with this governor we have now, though.
Well, you’re still making the effort with publications like yours. Much appreciated.
Brad, too, is giving me the high sign [laughs], so I guess we have others lined up.
Well thank you for your time. It’s been a joy talking to you.
A pleasure talking to you, too.
See more about Allegiance at allegiancemusical.com.
Neil Ellis Orts is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.