Over the past 50 years, George Takei has become famous for being many different things: Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu; an advocate for the Japanese American community; an out gay activist for LGBTQ issues; and a social media darling with millions of followers on Facebook. Now, at age 78, the pioneering Japanese American actor is about to make his debut on Broadway.
He will star in Allegiance, a new musical that begins previews at the Longacre Theatre on October 6. “Being on Broadway has always been my dream,” says Takei. “It’s definitely an ‘Oh, myyy!’” he adds with a big smile, using his trademark exclamation.
But Allegiance means a lot more to him than performing on a Broadway stage. The musical — written by Jay Kuo (music, lyrics, and book), Lorenzo Thione (book), and Marc Acito (book), and directed by Stafford Arima — is inspired by Takei’s own experiences of a shameful chapter in American history: the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in prison camps during World War II.
The musical tells the story of the Kimura family — Tatsuo (opera singer Christópheren Nomura), an artichoke farmer, and his children, Kei (Tony Award winner Lea Salonga) and Sammy (Telly Leung) — whose lives are abruptly upended when President Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1942 authorizing the deportation and incarceration of all Japanese Americans living on the Pacific Coast. Takei takes on two roles in this production: the son, Sam, as an 80-year-old in the present day, as well as Sam’s grandfather, OjiiChan, during the scenes set in the 1940s.
Allegiance sprang from a chance encounter that occurred seven years ago at a Broadway theatre: Takei and his husband, Brad, were in town from Los Angeles to attend a performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights when they noticed, sitting in their same row, two men who had struck up a conversation with them at an Off-Broadway show the night before. “’Isn’t that a strange coincidence?’ I said to Brad,’” Takei recalls, “and Brad said, ‘I think they are stalking us!’”
The encounter was actually pure coincidence. The two men, co-creator Thione, just flown in from the West Coast, and his collaborator, composer, and lyricist Kuo, were catching up on as much theater as they could pack in in a few days. The previous night they had overheard a couple in the row behind them discussing Title of Show, a musical that Thione and Kuo had also just seen and loved. So they turned around to share their enthusiasm for that show with the two fans behind them — who turned out to be George and Brad Takei.
Recounting their second meeting at In the Heights, Thione recalls: “Halfway through the first act, we looked over and noticed that George was crying rivers!” During the intermission, Thione and Kuo asked Takei what had made him get so emotional. Takei told them that what set him off was the song “Inutil” (“Useless” in Spanish), which is sung by the father in the story to express his inability to help his family succeed in the States.
“I’m a weeper,” Takei explains. “I was reminded of the after-dinner conversations I used to have with my father when I was teenager. I was only 5 years old when we were sent away to the camps, so I was curious. My father described to me his sense of helplessness: He had three children — my brother was a year younger and my sister was a baby — and he didn’t know what was going to happen next. But what anguished him the most was the loyalty questionnaire, and he had to make a momentous decision.”
That document included the infamous questions No. 27 and No. 28, which all adults were required to answer. The former asked if the prisoners in the camps would be willing serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, and the latter if they would swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America, and forswear loyalty to the Emperor of Japan. “The key word is forswear,” notes Takei. “The government assumed that we had an existing loyalty to the emperor despite the fact that we were born here, educated, and reared here. It was offensive and insulting and it was enraging.”
Thione and Kuo were so moved by Takei’s story they continued an email correspondence with the actor and, a few weeks later, Kuo sent Takei a song he’d written, titled “Allegiance,” which expressed the dilemma of the loyalty question. “We felt that what he had shared with us would make for an incredible musical because music can transcend and transmit emotion in a way that no words by themselves can do,” says Thione.
“I was just blubbering in front of my computer when I heard it!” Takei reports. “I had always wanted to dramatize the story of the internment and I saw it as drama,” he says. “But I’m a musical theater fan, so I knew music has the power to reach you right here,” he says, indicating his heart.
“We were fortunate to find in George not only a collaborator but a friend, teacher, and mentor. He taught us so much,” Thione continues. Takei introduced his new friends to the Japanese concept of gaman, which means to endure with dignity and strength. “That word came to embody so much of the emotions and the spirit of the characters in the show,” says Thione. “So many Japanese American families had to withstand the humiliation and the injustice of the internment, and yet so many Japanese Americans have become senators, entrepreneurs. We were captured by the sense of this spirit of endurance and resilience.” Takei adds impishly, “My memory of gaman is in the camps. There’d be a line for the latrine and when I was desperate to go, and my mother would tell me, ‘Gaman, George, gaman!’”
Takei’s own family spanned three generations of Japanese Americans. Using the terms adopted by the community, his father, who came to San Francisco as child, was Issei, while his mother, born in Sacramento, California, was second generation, Nisei; their children, third generation, Sansei. “But people who get technical say I am ‘Nissei and a half,’” he offers with a laugh. In Allegiance, Takei plays both a Sansei and an Issei. The grandfather Ojii-Chan, zero generation, is an amalgam of his mother’s relatives who were farmers in the Sacramento area, he says. “I see the Issei as heroic people who came here as immigrants, leaving everything that was familiar behind them and willing to work hard.”
The young adults in Allegiance, like so many of the Japanese American internees, were faced with stark choices: There were those who felt that they had to prove they were good Americans and eagerly signed up to join the 442nd the segregated military unit that was created for them; there were others who felt that this wasn’t the America to which their parents had come to build a better life. They were willing to fight as free Americans, but not as prisoners who were declared the enemy simply because of the way they looked.
“The family in the show symbolically reflects the fracture that still exists in the Japanese American community today,” says Takei, adding that when the creators of Allegiance toured California doing readings for potential investors, they encountered both factions.
Director Arima, who signed on shortly after Kuo and Thione started writing the musical, brought to the project his own personal experience. His father had been interned in Canada where a similar hysteria against people of Japanese ancestry swept through during World War II. “It was part of my upbringing but my father and his siblings never really talked about it. So I always felt that this story was meant to be heard. I think the human story of the family in Allegiance will transcend race, age, and color, and connect with an audience on a very visceral level.”
Takei views Allegiance as his legacy. “In many ways, I have been sharing this story of the internment because it’s a continuing story of America,” he says. “From the very beginning, there were all those shining ideals about democracy articulated by our founding fathers, who kept other human beings as slaves. But our democracy has been getting better and better over the years. This year, we have marriage equality throughout the country, an African American is the president of the United States, and there is a possibility that a woman could be the next. With this one story, this show tells the epic story of America and shows how far we have come.”
But the actor has a more intimate connection to this musical as well. Each night on stage, as the adult Sam who looks back at the choices made by his father, Tatsuo, in those dark years of the internment, Takei also takes a very personal and emotional journey back in time.
“My father and I didn’t have a totally loving relationship; there was always tension,” he explains. “During one of those after-dinner conversations, things got a little heated and I said to him, ‘Daddy, you led us like sheep to the slaughter, taking us into the internment camps.’ He just sat there silent. Then he looked up at me and said, ‘Well, maybe you are right,’ and he got up, went into his bedroom, and closed the door. I realized that I had hit a nerve and I felt terrible. I wanted to apologize, but the door was closed. This is my way of saying, ‘I’m sorry, Daddy.’”