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Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012

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Redemptive tale: George Takei rehearses the musical "Allegiance" last month in San Diego. HENRY DIROCCO / KYODO

George Takei musical tells story of internment


SAN DIEGO — On a California stage framed with weathered wood and barbed wire, George Takei sings a lullaby. "Ishi kara ishi, yama wa idousareru" ("Stone by stone, a mountain can be moved"). He is a grandfather trying to cheer up his granddaughter, played by Tony Award winner Lea Salonga. They join in a sweet duet, a tender moment set against the painful history of Japanese-American internment in "Allegiance — A New American Musical."

Takei, whose personal experiences inspired the musical that opened Sept. 19 in San Diego, hopes it will bring that history into mainstream consciousness. "East of the Rockies most people who seem otherwise educated and well-informed have said to me I had no idea something like this happened," Takei said.

Now a spry 75-year-old, the actor was 5 years old when soldiers knocked on the door of his family's California home and ordered them to leave. They were among 120,000 citizens and immigrants on the West Coast sent to remote camps on the assumption that their Japanese ancestry made them a threat to national security after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

Takei's family was sent to an internment camp in Arkansas. He remembers waking one night in the barracks to see his parents talking. "They had a kerosene lamp lit and they were hunkered over it, and my mother was crying. To a child, when you see your mother crying it's alarming."

Later, Takei learned from his father that on that night his parents were agonizing over a mandatory "loyalty questionnaire."

In 1943, all internees over age 17 were asked if they were willing to serve in the U.S. military and if they would "swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America . . . and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor."

If they answered yes, what would it mean? Would they be automatically drafted into military service? Would it imply they had allegiance to the Japanese emperor to start with? What nerve did it take to strip innocent citizens of their freedom and then demand affirmations of loyalty? And what would be done to them and their children if they answered "no"?

"It was a torturous, very excruciating decision for them," Takei says.

He has spoken publicly on his family's experiences for 50 years and had long wanted to turn them into a TV series. Then, in 2008, he ran into Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, a composer and producer who would become the writers of "Allegiance."

"It's better as a musical," Kuo told him. Takei balked. Kuo replied: "Sometimes you can reach people more deeply and move them more profoundly by music and reach their intellect through the heart," Takei says.

The number of people drying their eyes after one preview performance is a sign that "Allegiance" is hitting its mark.

The musical tells the story of the fictional Kimura family, ripped from their California farm and sent to the Heart Mountain internment camp in barren Wyoming. It is the impossible choices they face — choices between family, pride and patriotism, forced on them by a climate of wartime hysteria — and their disparate but courageous responses that drive the heartbreaking and ultimately redemptive tale.

From love songs to a sendup of patriotism behind barbed wire, the music gives captivating voice to the complex emotions of the internment. Songs like "Go For Broke" and "Resist" portray the courage of those who went to war for their country and those who refused the draft until their freedom was restored.

The resilient spirit of the camp survivors is a central theme. When the family and their neighbors are forced to take only what they can carry and board a train, Lea Salonga's character leads them in singing: "Gaman, gaman, steady and sure, keep faith and endure. . . . Even when all hope seems gone, gaman."

After the show, audience members praised the performance while lamenting the history behind it. "I was very skeptical when I came because I know the subject," said one elderly woman who identified herself as a Holocaust survivor. "That period in our history is shameful. As a production it was outstanding."

But some in the Japanese-American community have objected to the musical's depiction of Japanese-American veterans and that of Mike Masaoka, a historical figure who was one of the community's leaders from that era, saying they are not accurate portrayals.

Takei acknowledged the controversy, and the deep wounds left by internment, while defending the writers' choices. "The family in the story is fictional, but all these things actually happened. And the lines of Mike Masaoka all come from historical documents," Takei said.

Because of high audience demand, the run was extended through Oct. 28. Takei's Facebook fans are clamoring for a tour, and he hopes to one day see the show performed in Japanese in Tokyo. The producers plan to open on Broadway by April, in time for Tony Award nominations.

Asked what it means to him to re-enact part of what his parents went through on that night in an Arkansas barracks, Takei smiles.

"To be able to tell that story dramatically, so that it can communicate not just in words but emotionally . . . I can't tell you what a thrill it is," Takei said.

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