‘Allegiance’ uplifts by doctoring Japanese American history

MUSICAL ON WWII INCARCERATION OF JAPANESE AMERICANS TO OPEN ON BROADWAY — Actor George Takei (3rd from L, 2nd row) and others on the cast of Broadway musical “Allegiance” appear on stage at the Longacre Theater in New York on Sept. 29. A preview for the musical, inspired by Takei’s own childhood experience in a U.S. concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, began on Oct. 6 ahead of its official opening on Nov. 8.  Kyodo News photo  ==Kyodo

MUSICAL ON WWII INCARCERATION OF JAPANESE AMERICANS TO OPEN ON BROADWAY — Actor George Takei (3rd from L, 2nd row) and others on the cast of Broadway musical “Allegiance” appear on stage at the Longacre Theater in New York on Sept. 29. A preview for the musical, inspired by Takei’s own childhood experience in a U.S. concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, began on Oct. 6 ahead of its official opening on Nov. 8. Kyodo News photo
==Kyodo

SPOILER ALERT: This theater preview reveals an absurd central plot point.

The problem with the new musical “Allegiance” is not just historical inaccuracies — although it is riddled with them. It’s the fabrication of events that were impossible within the reality of America’s concentration camps.

As creator of the 2000 PBS film, “Conscience and the Constitution” — which first framed the conflict between the organized resistance led by Frank Emi, and its suppression by the government and JACL, led by Mike Masaoka — I’ve been asked how the musical performs as history.

Judging from the first public preview, it’s apparent the makers of “Allegiance” found the fact of civilian administration of the camps too mundane — which it was — to provide the dramatic obstacle to their themes of endurance and hope. To compensate, they conflate Heart Mountain with the worst of the segregation center at Tule Lake and invent military rule at Heart Mountain.

“Allegiance” is billed as a fiction “inspired by the true-life experience” of star George Takei, who was imprisoned as a child at Rohwer and Tule Lake. But his personal experience validates only those events common to every camp story — fictional family at home, Pearl Harbor, selling the farm cheap, yes-yes/no-no and war’s end. Once that family, here called the Kimuras, is evicted from home and reaches the WRA camp in Wyoming, the makers of “Allegiance” selectively alter the reality governing Heart Mountain to more closely suggest that of a German POW camp — complete with camp-wide loudspeakers ordering a nighttime curfew, Military Police shoving Nisei to the ground, evacuees sorted by gender upon arrival and told to strip to their underwear, and Issei clapped into handcuffs for answering no-no on the loyalty oath.

Camp was degrading and dehumanizing, but this is fantasy that stirs emotion at the expense of fact. The processing of new arrivals is staged to evoke the ghoulish selection process at Nazi gas chambers. Camp-wide loudspeakers were a feature of “M*A*S*H,” not Heart Mountain. Incarcerees only had to roll up their sleeves to receive inoculations after arrival. The curfew existed on the West Coast before eviction, not after removal to camp; where would you go?

The MPs at Heart Mountain were an ominous presence, but their patrol of the exterior gate and nine guard towers ended several hundred feet outside the barbed-wire fence that encircled the barracks. Handcuffs were not needed on segregants headed for Tule Lake, because in the high desert of Wyoming, where would you run?

Act I ends with the hyper-patriotic Sam Kimura enlisting in the Army and raising his hand in salute, while his sister Kei’s sweetheart, Frankie Suzuki, raises his fist in defiance.

“Frankie” is revealed in Act II as a stand-in for the real-life Frank Emi, one of the leaders of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. But where “Conscience” presents the resistance for what it was — a studied act of civil disobedience — “Allegiance” incongruously recasts the resisters as the oppressed, fists-raised revolutionaries from “Les Misérables” (“Resist”).

Reporters ask Sam, now a war hero and sweet on Hannah, a white nurse, how he feels about “the draft riots at Heart Mountain” where resisters “are burning their draft cards.”

Frankie exclaims to Kei, “They could hang me for treason!” (“This Is Not Over”). Frankie is hunted by armed guards inside the perimeter and refuses to hide. He is thrown into a stockade at Heart Mountain, where he is kicked and beaten bloody by MPs. Kei rallies the women to appeal for help by writing letters they smuggle out of camp under their skirts (“Resist” reprise). From his prison cell, Frankie reports that “With the press getting ahold of our story, there’s word of letting us out early, maybe even a pardon.” (“Nothing in Our Way”).

It’s laughable nonsense, as if the camps were run not by Dillon Myer and the WRA but by Hermann Göring and his Luftwaffe. No firearms were used inside the perimeter. The resistance was open and above-board, its meetings open to the public. No one had to run or hide; leaders of the Fair Play Committee were quietly taken into custody at their family barracks by federal marshals who came at dawn. The resisters knew they risked five years in prison for bucking the draft, but violating the Selective Service Act was never a capital crime, never treason. No resistance leader at Heart Mountain was beaten bloody or hunted by guards like an inmate escaping “Stalag 17.”

Draft cards were burned at Berkeley in the 1960s, for the benefit of TV cameras, not in 1940s Heart Mountain. The only disturbances were at Manzanar, Poston and Tule Lake.

Heart Mountain had no stockade; that was Tule Lake. The one sympathetic editorial in the Wyoming Eagle gave a federal judge no pause before he convicted the 63 resisters.

President Truman did pardon the resisters, but only after the war, and only along with all draft resisters of WWII. Eyewitness Yosh Kuromiya calls all of it an insult to the memory of the FPC.

What’s truly preposterous: With his bloodied head wrapped in bandages, Frankie is dragged by an MP to the infirmary. Hannah the white nurse moves to treat him, but the MP punches Frankie around (!), pulls out his sidearm (!), and (SPOILER ALERT) in the scuffle shoots and kills Hannah by mistake.

Audiences gasp. It’s a show stopper, but for the wrong reasons. This is no longer historical fiction, like “a story you’ve never heard.” It’s “a story that could never have possibly happened.” The manslaughter of a white nurse at Heart Mountain, and the court-martial of a white MP, would have rocked the course of history. The World War II of “Allegiance” exists in an alternate universe, science fiction as told by Philip K. Dick.

The show’s makers freely acknowledge that “Allegiance” has as much to do with the camps as “Miss Saigon” did with the war in Vietnam. The historical events exist only as a backdrop for themes of love and hope. But audiences knew something about the Vietnam War. Audiences with no background must accept this action at face value, unaware that much of it was impossible under the reality of the time.

An inventive score might have redeemed this mashup, but the songs of “Allegiance” are themselves a pastiche of relentless optimism that admits to no darkness. The Nisei in this camp make their “Wishes on the Wind” and aspire to go “Higher,” because their native “Gaman” makes them “Stronger Than Before.” The trite lyrics and forgettable melodies derive from the show tunes of Sondheim or Lloyd Webber, but without their wit, edge, or skill at character development. Generic in tone, the songs could be lifted from any similar show, rather than springing from a specific Japanese American impulse — such as the anger and suppressed rage that we know the Nisei carried with them from camp, and which some finally expressed during redress.

The only anger in the show, in fact, is reserved for last, when Sam renounces his sister and Frankie for letting his white girlfriend get killed: “You were supposed to protect her!”

The events of the evening do not lead to any grappling with the enormity of four years in camp. All we’re left with is melodrama.

Unexpectedly, the one thing this show gets right is its portrayal of Mike Masaoka. By no longer having him sing and dance (“Better Americans in a Greater America”) as he did in the 2012 tryout in San Diego, the wartime leader of the JACL is no longer reduced to a caricature. And by using his actual words, more or less, we begin to see the false distinctions between loyal and disloyal that the wartime government forced upon Japanese America, with help from JACL, and which we then internalized among ourselves. The show, however, does not pursue this more interesting idea. Actor Greg Watanabe did his homework and captures Masaoka’s earnest surrender of civil rights with gravitas and flashes of stubborn defiance.

While the show is widely regarded as “George Takei’s Allegiance,” he is not a producer or writer with responsibility for the project. He is an impish presence as grandfather Kimura; he is a commanding presence as the grown-up Sam Kimura; and he growls out his one number (“Ishi Kara Ishi”) while cleverly folding his loyalty questionnaire into the paper flower blossom seen in the show’s logo. Responsibility for blurred focus and historical fabrications lie with the creative team behind the book, or script. The team was lucky to have secured George’s services to front the show. Mr. Takei graciously provided a voice for our film, he’s done extraordinary work in the community, and people are made to feel that they share in his legacy project.

Japanese Americans who protest “it’s only a musical” overlook the fact that, should “Allegiance” stand, it risks supplanting the truth of the resistance and the Japanese American experience in the popular mind. It’s not a question of insisting that art be slavishly accurate; dramatists must have leeway to condense and rearrange to arrive at an emotional truth. “Allegiance” is bad art that sacrifices truth for a theatricality that cheapens the fabric of basic reality to achieve its ends. It arises less from an authentic sensibility, and more as the product of market research, calibrated for fame, box office, and Tony nods.

Broadway will embrace and defend its own, but Japanese America did not fight — I did not fight — to set the record straight through redress and restoration of the resisters, only to have verifiable fact sacrificed for a great curtain call.

The script is now locked. Opening night for review by the New York press is Nov. 8. It’s now left to critics and the community to see through the revisionism and recognize where this show’s allegiance lies.

For more description of “Allegiance” as previewed, see www.resisters.com.

Frank Abe is producer/director of the documentary “Conscience and the Constitution,” about the organized resistance at the Heart Mountain concentration camp during World War II. He writes from Seattle. The views expressed in the preceding review are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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