Allegiance, music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione; directed by Stafford Arima. Produced at the Longacre Theatre. Copyright 2016. (Seen February 19, 2017.)
Theatre has many purposes: to make us laugh, to give us an escape, and – as in this case – to educate and enlighten, reflecting on society.
George Takei has been very vocal in the political realm. He has not only taken up the fight for the rights of LGBT citizens, he also has been very public about growing up in one of the Japanese internment camps during World War II (he was five when his family was put into one). He routinely talks about how the fear and racism that led to these series of events, and how the recent anti-Muslim sentiment is eerily too close to what happened then.
In 2008, he started to develop a musical loosely based on the experience, which then moved to Broadway. In December 2016, Fathom Events presented a cinema screening – no doubt partly in response to this political landscape. They did an encore screening on February 19, which was the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which was the start of the relocation and internment of these citizens.
The story follows the Kimura family: the son Sammy (Telly Leung when he is young, Takei when he is older), who is desperate for his father Tatsuo’s approval (played by Christopheren Nomura); and the daughter Kei (Lea Salonga), who ended up raising Sam due to the mother dying giving birth to Sam. (When we move to the past, Takei takes on the role of the grandfather, “Ojii-San”.) When Pearl Harbor is attacked, the family is forced to sell their farm for a fraction of the cost and are moved into the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.
As the family tries to navigate the world of the internment camp, Sam is determined to show his allegiance in any way possible, and is convinced that being allowed to enlist would help prove his loyalty, and therefore the loyalty of all Japanese Americans. He becomes friends with the nurse, Hannah (Katie Rose Clarke), and eventually becomes romantically involved with her, despite the pressure surrounding the relationship.
Meanwhile, Kei is trying to just take care of everyone, and runs into Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee). Frankie, who’s parents had been put into jail, is convinced the only way to deal with the situation is through fighting. He leads a small group of resistance people, burning draft cards and planning escapes. The two end up falling for each other, which causes Sam and Kei to have a falling out.
Over the musical, you see both brother and sister go their own ways, neither of them shown as right or wrong, and become distant. The beginning and the end of the musical is Sam, now older, being informed of Kei’s death, and learning to accept that not everything was one sided.
I had been aware of this musical for a while now: when I attended Planet Comicon in 2013, I managed to ask Takei about developing it during his talk (and for better or for worse, ended up being the only person who asked a question, as he then spent the rest of the time talking about it).
So, I was very eager to see it, and was unhappy when I missed my chance in December. This is – for better or for worse – a story that hasn’t been really told before, and one that needs to be. After all, those who do not know the past ….
The plot itself is pretty tame, all things considering: as other critics have indicated, it’s a bit melodramatic in places and somewhat predictable. But at the same time, it’s a musical: being melodramatic and predictable are basically tropes of the genre. What matters here is the story being told, and the fact that – as the post credits ‘extra features’ indicated – Asian stories are not often told in American media. The very fact that the cast is almost entirely Asian is – again, unfortunately – something rare and as such needs to be celebrated.
Leung does a stand out job as a man trapped between wanting to prove he is capable to his father and his country. Takei is a delight playing the grandfather, a little silly at times; and then turns serious when he is ‘modern’ Sam. Salonga, unsurprisingly, shines as Kei. She plays vulnerable, strong, and intelligent – sometimes all at once. She gets my favorite song, “Higher”, that sums up her character and story arc in one song.
I found Allegiance heartwarming and a good way to tell the story of this sad blot on American history. I thought it did a great job of acknowledging that there isn’t one way to fight injustice, and that it is a far more complicated battle than most people seem to realize. It also showed that families can be frustrating and communication is key to understanding.
I don’t know if Fathom Events plans on doing another screening, or if there’s any potential for it to ever grace our screens via DVD or streaming services. It is definitely worth seeing. For more information about the show, visit the official website.