When George Takei was a child, he lived through a real-life drama that surpassed any the stories he would enact as Mr. Sulu on the classic sci-fi series "Star Trek." Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Takei and his family, along with 120,000 other Japanese-Americans, were incarcerated in United States internment camps. Takei spent part of his childhood at Camp Rohwer in Arkansas and at Camp Tule Lake in Northern California. Nearly 70 years later, his traumatic experience became the inspiration for Allegiance, a new musical by Jay Kuo, Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione, which will open at the Old Globe Theatre on Sept. 19, with Takei in the cast. The actor talked to Playbill.com about the show's journey from a chance encounter in a theatre to the Old Globe stage.
How did you come to be involved with this production?
George Takei: Allegiance is a project that was born in a Broadway theatre, as a matter of fact. My husband Brad and I are theatregoers and we go to the theatre almost every night. One night we were at the theatre and there weren't too many people seated yet. We were talking about the play we had seen the night before. Then two guys came in and sat down right in front of us, and one of them recognized my voice and turned around and said, "You're George Takei, aren't you?" And we chatted a bit. That was Jay Kuo.
The composer-lyricist of Allegiance.
GT: The next night we went to see In the Heights, and this time in the very same row, a few seats down, the same two guys were seated. We just waved to each other and that was the extent of our contact. Then the play began. And near the end of the first song, there's a song the father sings, "Inútil" — "Useless." He wants to do so much for his daughter. For some odd reason, that triggered my memory of my father in the Arkansas internment camp. Our family was interned in two camps during World War II. The first place we were taken to were the horse stables at Santa Anita Racetrack, near Los Angeles. The camps weren't built yet. When the camps were built, we were taken to the swamps of eastern Arkansas to a camp called Rohwer. Do you know about the loyalty questionnaire?
|photo by Henry DiRocco|
GT: What triggered my memory of my father was, a year into the imprisonment, the government came down with a loyalty questionnaire. And the purpose of that was to tap various men and women who had been imprisoned in the camps as being potential traitors and saboteurs, and recruit them for the military. The backstory of that is stingingly ironic. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, young Japanese-American men rushed to their recruitment centers to volunteer to serve. That act of patriotism was responded to with a slap in the face. They were denied service and categorized as "enemy non-aliens." But then the government realized there was a wartime manpower shortage, and here are all these young men and women who could be serving. So, how to ascertain their loyalty? They came down with a loyalty questionnaire, very stupidly put together. Anyone over 17 had to respond to it. There were two questions that were particularly offensive. Question 27 asked, "Will you bear arms to defend the United States of America?" This was asked of a 17-year-old man as well a 87-year-old lady. Question 28 was one sentence with two opposing ideas. It asked, "Will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America, and foreswear your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan?" Asked of a citizen! It was outrageous. We were born here, raised here. But the government assumed we had a inborn loyalty because of our race. You can't foreswear something you don't have. So it was impossible to answer accurately.
GT: The amazing thing is so many young people swallowed their pride and dignity and answered "yes" to that Question 28. They left that camp and put on the same uniform as other American soldiers and served with amazing courage. Anyway, that song reminded me of the anguish of my father. I was literally bawling. As the lights came up, I was trying to wipe my face clean of my tears, and Jay and Lorenzo [Thione, the co-librettists] came up. Jay asked me why I was crying. That's what started the conversation. Jay became very interested in the internment. We went out for drinks after the play that night. And we decided to have dinner the subsequent night. They went back to San Francisco and we went back to Los Angeles. But I maintained an email communication with Jay. And two weeks later he sent a song over which characterized my father's torture and anguish. That song was called "Allegiance." Out of that came what we have now.
|Photo by Henry DiRocco|
Did he broach the idea then that you might be involved in the show?
GT: I told him I had written an autobiography and the first third deals with my childhood in the internment camps. He said, "A musical is a much more powerful way of reaching the mind and the heart, and that's the best way to communicate an issue as complex as the internment camps." And being a musical theatre fan, I agreed with him. We began the idea of making a musical with what I shared with them that night in New York.
The story of the musical takes place in your character's mind, yes?
GT: That's correct.
Do you sing in the show?
GT: I have a song with Lea Salonga. An undreamed-of opportunity! We saw Miss Saigon in London at the Drury Lane way back when. We go to London for theatre, as well.
You are a real theatre fan, aren't you? When's the last time you were on stage?
GT: The last time I was on stage was two years ago in Chatham, England. I do a lot of plays in England. I'm the son of an Anglophile. I was born the year of George VI's coronation and so my father decided to name me after English royalty. My brother was, too. When he was born, he was round and fat and roly-poly, as fat at Henry VIII. So guess what his name is? And I went to school in England as well.
Is your Allegiance character on stage all of the time or some of the time?
GT: I play two characters. I'm Sam, a veteran of the 442nd regiment, the all-Japanese-American unit. I book-end the memory that is the story. But within the memory, I play my own grandfather.
Do you draw on your father's experiences for your portrayals?
GT: I use my father's experience and I had other relatives who were imprisoned in camps or fought in the 442nd.