On Veteran’s Day this year (not intentionally planned), I went to see the Broadway musical Allegiance, a powerful story inspired by George Takei’s experience of being forced into a Japanese internment camp during World War II. I was prepared for an emotional experience: I didn’t expect it to happen within the first two songs and thereafter. The allegiances wrestled with amongst the characters here are for country (which one?), family, values and honor.
The lead youth male, Sammy Kimura played by Telly Leung, and as far as I know not directly based on Takei’s experience, is a headstrong character, born in the United States, of Japanese descent. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sam longs to prove his allegiance to America, and believes the best way is to enlist in the military. His efforts are initially thwarted, as the military won’t accept those of Japanese descent. He and the rest of the family are ordered into a Japanese internment camp, set up in horse stables on a mountain. Kei Kimura, Sammy’s older sister, played by the formidable Lea Salonga, wrestles with her allegiance to family and Japanese identity, along with her growth as an individual. Her voice makes the melodies take flight. I don’t often say this, but I was swept up by her performance. Sometimes I couldn’t understand the words, not because she wasn’t articulating them, but because in that moment they didn’t matter. Her singing took me on a journey that I could empathize with, without language. George Takei, who plays two roles, the older Sammy and Sammy and Kei’s grandfather, brings humor and sweetness to a difficult story. As the grandfather, he fights the least, which is not to say he’s weak, but is instead sure of himself and where his loyalty lies, and doesn’t struggle with what he “should” do or feel. Christopheren Nomura with a melancholy baritone, plays Sammy and Kei’s father, a Japanese immigrant to California, where he’d started a life and farm for the familiar reasons of building a better life in America. His allegiance is to his family and values: the role is heartbreaking not for any plot device, but for the stories in Nomura’s face, his ability to portray internal struggle without saying or singing a word (though when he does sing, you’ll sit up and take notice).
I’ve read a review (warning: there are plot spoilers in it) that bewails the historical accuracy of the musical. Given that the review writer, Frank Abe, is a documentarian of this very subject, I’m comfortable with his ability to know the history and frustration with the liberty taken with some of the story. The musical is inspired by George Takei’s real-life experience, but is not meant to be a strict portrayal of it. Abe takes issue with the dramatization of events, stating that the processing of new arrivals was mostly administrative, and that the resistance to the military draft by Japanese Americans already in internment camps was less “fist-raising” and more a “studied act of civil disobedience.”
While fully understand Abe’s frustration of a history portrayed with inaccurate facts, I believe that people do not go to the theater to learn facts. We go to have an experience. Drama, like music, like memoir, aims to give the audience an emotional truth – whether the facts are accurate or not. Yes, there were moments that I felt may have been worked in for musical theater convention’s sake. In the hands of another lyricist, composer, or book writer, the story may have taken a different turn. But to me, these were not the moments that mattered as much. While the administrative process and resistance may have been outwardly quiet in fact, by dramatizing the events, I experienced the shame and rage of the evacuees, i.e. the emotional truth. And by experiencing the emotional truth of the piece, I’ve become inspired to learn the facts, to learn the true stories behind the show, with the awareness that it didn’t happen exactly as it was presented on stage.
Allegiance is an important musical theater piece, that portrays an event in American history that most American children of my generation didn’t learn about in textbooks. Growing up in Canada, I remember learning about Japanese internment, in my elementary school reader, not understanding the term “internment” and not comprehending how something like that could happen. For the sake of Japanese-Americans, Asian-Americans, and anyone who’s ever dealt with being judged on the color of their skin and national heritage, this show must be seen. There is hope, if we can understand, experience, and acknowledge the past.