‘Allegiance’ musical a lyrical interpretation of Japanese American history

Just think about it, a musical based on the incarceration experience of Japanese Americans during World War II. It struck me as an idea so far out that I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. But that’s the nature of creativity, isn’t it? Something we lesser mortals can’t imagine turns out to be something that someone else thinks is a great idea, and they produce something quite remarkable.

I had been privileged to see a DVD of “Allegiance — A New American Musical” as a work in progress last year and was impressed with the concept, but the product didn’t quite look like something that would grab a big audience. Still, I had to admire the dedication and energy the creators and cast were pouring into the project, and I wondered if they could actually pull it off.

Well, I think that I can now say that yes, they really did pull it off, and that the final production now playing at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego is a triumph. We, my siblings and I, former camp inmates, went a week after the opening with the expectation that it would be a smoother running production at that point. It certainly was. The characters have been fleshed out, the transitions more clearly staged and the basic concepts more developed.

The story of the Kimura family through 60 years, from a California farm to a rejoining in 2001, is heartbreaking. Sammy and Kei, a brother and sister, and their father and grandfather are incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyo., one of the 10 camps housing the 120,000 persons of Japanese descent — most of whom were American citizens. Sammy is approached by Mike Masaoka, leader of the Japanese American Citizens League, and he becomes active in promoting loyalty to the United States.

Sammy volunteers for the army, serving with the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe, while his embittered father is dragged off to the Tule Lake Segregation Center in Northern California for his refusal to comply with a “loyalty questionnaire.”

Kei meets and falls in love with Frankie, a leader of a group that resists draft orders. When Sammy returns home, he finds out that his sister has married Frankie. In a rage, he breaks all ties with his family. After 60 years, Sammy realizes that he had been used by Masaoka, who wanted high casualties in the war to express Japanese American loyalty. At the end, Sammy is reconciled with the daughter of his sister, Kei.

The audience — a sold-out crowd, which was mostly white the evening that I saw the production — was riveted, laughing and applauding, seriously following the complicated story with rapt attention, and it gave the cast a standing ovation at the end.

So first of all, “Allegiance” passed the basic test of a theatrical offering: It is very entertaining. The singers are great, the dancing expert and the sets and lighting keep the whole show moving at a good clip. Lea Salonga (Kei Kimura) is a terrific singer, George Takei (Sam Kimura) was a good crotchety old man, and the substitute performer Karl Josef Co (Sammy Kimura), in for Telly Leung that night, was touching as the conflicted young man. We didn’t leave the theater humming the tunes of “Better Americans in a Greater America” and “Gaman” like they did at some musicals in times past like “Some Enchanted Evening,” but only a few great song writers have achieved that kind of success, and “Allegiance” does just fine. “Allegiance” was also a great vehicle for a number of talented Asian American performers who got a chance to strut their stuff, and that was great to see.

Going in, my big concerns were: Will they get the story right? Will they stay true to the spirit of these events? Will they convey the truly tragic consequences of government policies imposed on this inmate population? In my opinion, they do, and surprisingly well, since you can’t expect a musical to be a history lesson.

What I like best is that this story is advertised as an American story, “an epic story of family, love, and patriotism.” Rather than a bit of some obscure, inconsequential historic aberration that happened a long time ago, the incarceration experience here is treated as an American story that lives on and has some real relevance for today. The musical strikes notes that touch on contemporary issues like anti-Muslim reactions to the events of 9/11 and on a general level, the racism that infects our communities.

There’s going to be controversy over the depiction of Mike Masaoka in this musical, and for me, this is a good thing. One matter that has been festering in our Japanese American community has been the role of the JACL during World War II, and “Allegiance” may help in bringing it out into the sunlight.

“Allegiance” is the product of Italy native Lorenzo Thione and Jay Kuo. This is their reading of the record based on available documents, and some will say that it is a misinterpretation of the record, but I believe that it is a legitimate reading. There is always conflict within an immigrant community with generational clashes of values and traditions, and in our case, because of the special circumstances, the conflicts resulted in some ruined lives and scarred families.

What could be a better way to tell our story to a general audience than song and dance? You gotta see it to believe it. “Allegiance’s” run has been extended a week, to Oct. 28, so that’s a sign that it’s a hit. The producers want to take this to Broadway, and it looks like this might happen.

“Allegiance — A New American Musical” runs through Sunday, Oct. 28 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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