Pledging ‘Allegiance’: New musical doesn’t hide from controversy

A chance encounter in a New York theater between actor George Takei and producer Lorenzo Thione — who was with composer Jay Kuo — led to the development and production of a new musical, “Allegiance,” now playing at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

Takei spoke about his experiences during World War II as an inmate of American concentration camps in Arkansas and California, part of the U.S. government’s program to imprison all Japanese Americans who lived on the West Coast. This surprised Thione and Kuo, who had never heard about this history. Recognizing the drama inherent in this story, the three embarked on creating this musical about a family and a community’s travails as they are forced by the U.S. government to make agonizing, life-changing choices. Issues like the so-called “loyalty questionnaire,” the draft of men into the army, and resistance to the draft are prominent plot points in the story.

One character in the musical is Mike Masaoka, who was a real person, and his inclusion by name in the script has prompted questions. Revered in real life by a large part of the Japanese American community but hated and disliked by another part, he remains a controversial figure because of his role as a leader of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) during the war.

The Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed three main players in the musical — actor George Takei, producer Lorenzo Thione and director Stafford Arima — via e-mail to discuss this controversial new musical, which opened at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, Calif. Sept. 19, and runs until Sunday, Oct. 21.

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George Takei,
Actor in “Allegiance”

Nichi Bei Weekly: I see that your family was moved to Tule Lake (Segregation Center) because of the loyalty questionnaire issues. Growing up in Los Angeles, did you personally feel that there was a stigma attached to your family because of the Tule Lake situation?
George Takei: I must say, growing up in LA, I did not feel any particular stigma from having been incarcerated at Tule Lake other than the occasional reference made by some people about “trouble makers at Tule Lake.” I always “corrected” those comments by telling them that my parents made a difficult but principled decision on the Loyalty Questionnaire. These people then usually backed down. I suspect that they really didn’t know much details about the circumstances involved.
 
NBW: How do you feel about having this character, Mike Masaoka, so prominently portrayed in “Allegiance” as such a villain?
GT: Mike Masaoka was a complex person who I feel was as much a “victim” of Executive Order 9066 as any Japanese American who was interned. In his naïve idealism, he felt he was trying to make a bad situation not as onerous as it could have been by cooperating with the government. For this effort, he has become deified by certain people, such as the “old guard” JACLers, but also hated as the very personification of an obsequious collaborator with an oppressive authority. He is portrayed in “Allegiance” in all his complexity as well as factually by his actions during the period of internment. He is condemned by his own documented words as an amoral “Uncle Tom.”

NBW: What kind of relationship have you had with the JACL over the years?
GT: Incidentally, I am a long time member of the JACL’s Thousand Club, a former president of the Wilshire chapter and a former National Cultural Affairs chair of the JACL in the ‘70s. I have heard Mike Masaoka speak at JACL conventions.

NBW: Are you getting a lot of requests for interviews on this subject?
GT: In my capacity as an actor in “Allegiance,” I have the responsibility to promote the show in all ways possible. So I have accepted a host of interview requests as well as speaking at various public events. As a matter of fact, today (Sept. 17) is Constitution Day, so in observance of this day, I spoke to a high school assembly here in San Diego sponsored by the ACLU on the internment, an egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution. Bright and early tomorrow morning, I have a radio interview to promote the show.

NBW: I know that you have been pursuing a project about Iva Toguri and the “Tokyo Rose” story. How is that going?
GT: The Tokyo Rose project is currently on the back burner. “Allegiance” is my top priority.

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Lorenzo Thione,
Producer and Book Writer of “Allegiance”

Nichi Bei Weekly: What went into your decision to use the actual name, Mike Masaoka, for one of your characters? There are people who really object to this, including some prominent scholars. Are you getting flack from other groups like the JACL for this?
Lorenzo Thione: Mike Masaoka was a public figure, whose complex life and actions divided the community and whose contribution to the record still infuriates some, while vigorously defended by others. We wanted to tell the story of how the events of the internment split the community, and affected the lives of real people and families. It is a true controversy, which still incenses the spirits today. The impact of the story of the division within the community wouldn’t have had the same resonance or the same impact, and wouldn’t have encouraged as much discussion and analysis of the public record, which we also make available on the show’s site at www.allegiancemusical.com. There are definitely those who resent the portrayal of Masaoka, but in truth, we have received messages from both sides of the spectrum, those who feel the portrayal of Masaoka was unjustifiably vilifying, and those who accuse us of giving Masaoka a free pass without fully portraying the degree of his involvement.

NBW: Of course, Masaoka was a very complex person, and brilliant in his way, but so flawed.
LT: And it definitely shows in the most recent versions of the script. I don’t believe there is anyone in the audience who leaves believing Masaoka is the villain. Rather, the emphasis is on the human tragedy of the internment and on the very many lives consumed and turned upside down by the reactions the community adopted to the actions of the government.

NBW: What kinds of feedback comes back from audiences? Do they “get it”?
LT: Absolutely. The reactions of the audience are stunning, and they center around how much learning and discovery each audience member has been able to make thanks to the light we shine on the story of the internment.

NBW: Where does Allegiance go from San Diego? Will the company travel to other cities soon? Like, will it come to Berkeley or San Francisco?
LT: We are planning a NYC production on Broadway next season, and a North American tour in 2013-2014, which would likely take the show to the Bay Area.

NBW: Who are your financial backers and do they include any Japanese Americans?
LT: There are several individuals who believed in the importance of this story being told, including Japanese Americans from California and Hawai’i, as well as other states. The road ahead is still long, and as the production moves to Broadway we will be seeking additional funding and support. Anyone who might be interested can get in touch with us through our Website, or sending an e-mail to info@allegiancemusical.com.

NBW: I sense a rising interest in the internment story, like the New York Times sending its SF bureau chief and a photographer to the last Tule Lake Pilgrimage. If a big wave of public interest comes from “Allegiance,” how can we (journalists, scholars and others) be prepared to get into the discussion?
LT: (The year) 2012 is the 70th anniversary of the internment, so it’s only understandable that the press is paying more attention to the story. We remain available to contribute and be part of a national dialogue with any press and outlet that would like to fold the story of “Allegiance” and of its creation, into the discourse regarding the internment of Japanese Americans.

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Stafford Arima,
Director of “Allegiance”

Nichi Bei Weekly: I see that you are a Canadian whose family was also incarcerated during World War II. I know that in some ways, their experience was worse than that of American Japanese. What can you say about the impact of your family’s history on the way that you approached this project?
Stafford Arima: My family was interned in Slocan City, British Columbia. As a young boy, my family never spoke about their experiences. The most I ever heard were sentences or phrases that included, “in the camps…” It sounded like a fun place to a young boy.

I don’t ever recall learning about the Japanese internment at school. It was like it never happened. In doing research on families being interned, I spoke a couple of years ago to my family and it was a very difficult conversation. My eldest aunt had a great deal of emotion when talking about her experience. She was uncomfortable. My uncle, on the other hand, was exuberant to share his stories, his anger, his experience. My father rarely speaks about it, and when he does, he generally refers to it as a “fun time” in his life. It’s hard to know if that is his stock answer or if it was truly the way he remembers his experience.

Knowing that part of my family’s history involves being thrown into these camps and being treated this way (as Canadian citizens) fires my artistic and personal passions when it comes to “Allegiance.” The story of “Allegiance” is a universal story about families and individuals overcoming adversity and transforming their lives.

“Allegiance — A New American Musical” runs through Sunday, Oct. 21 at The Old Globe Theatre’s Conrad Prebys Theatre Center. Starring Lea Salonga and George Takei. Music and lyrics by Jay Kuo; 
book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo 
and Lorenzo Thione;
directed by Stafford Arima. Tickets cost $49 and up. For more information, visit www.allegiancemusical.com.

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