By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote William Faulkner. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote George Santayana.
As frequently-flogged as those quotes have become in American society, along all allegiances and modes of sanity (Obama likes the first one; Jim Jones posted the second one over the throne from which he decreed mass suicide), I certainly could not shake their weight on my brain while watching “Allegiance,” the new musical based on George Takei’s life story.
Takei, the actor best known for his portrayal of Mr. Sulu in the long-running “Star Trek” series, went with his family to the relocation camps for Japanese Americans during World War II — first at the converted horse stables in Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., then to the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, and finally the Tule Lake Relocation Center, back in California. The new musical, recorded and playing one night only (Dec. 13) in Seattle and Bellevue, was inspired by his own experiences, but throws a wider net to encompass the tough and heartbreaking tribulations of Japanese Americans during the war.
The show began as two chance encounters between Takei and his husband, Brad Altman Takei, with songwriter Jay Kuo and writer Lorenzo Thione. As written by Kuo, Thione, and Marc Acito, with Kuo providing the music and lyrics, “Allegiance” follows the Kimura family across several generations, covering the internment camps, the entrance of Japanese American soldiers into the war (in their own segregated regiment, the 442nd Infantry), divided loyalties, divided family beliefs, and the lingering stings of betrayal and rage.
The action starts with Takei as Isamu “Sam” Kimura, a veteran of the 442nd Infantry preparing for a modern-day Pearl Day Harbor celebration — in other words, a Japanese American compelled to make an appearance to demonstrate that Japanese Americans took a stand against Imperial Japan. He’s rueful at his position, upset that even as an old man, he’s a pawn in a larger game played by men far above his level. Then the news comes that his long-estranged sister Kei (Lea Solanga) has died.
He wants nothing to do with the sister he rejected decades ago, although at first, we don’t understand why he walled himself off from his own family. Soon enough, Kei appears in a half-lit, ghostly form, and begins to sing him back into the past. Everything else vanishes into, and eventually emerges from, this vortex of time.
I wish I could say nicer things about Kuo’s score. He’s making an honest effort, but he couldn’t escape obvious rhymes, with spackled-on sentiment. The swing-time music, a nod to the WWII era, works well enough, but the drawn-out ballads eventually unravel and snap. Musically underscoring every point made obvious by the story doesn’t help.
The story, while predictable enough to anyone who knows history, works better because it concentrates on small but rich and warm, human moments. The camps are cold and dusty, and the U.S. soldiers gruff, sometimes cruel. A sympathetic nurse (Katie Rose Clarke) bends the rules where she can. Dancing helps distract from the harshness. So do jokes and old family routines. Romance sprouts in unlikely situations. Two lovers meet by a wall. One may face death. They may be kissing their last kiss.
And the men caught up in all this, at least, faced death in at least two ways. They could join the 442nd Infantry and take their chances with active combat duty. If they refused to swear loyalty to America, the “No-No Boys” as they were called, faced ejection from the camps into prisons, and the specter, at least, of the hangman’s noose — for the death penalty for treason was on the books. The ones who went hated the ones who got locked up, and the feeling was often mutual.
And history? I sit at the downtown library, watching the Kimura’s saga unfold. Two grade school boys sit opposite of me, WWII history books open, copying out quotes. I take an internet break and everyone’s asking, what does our incoming president really mean? Will he uphold his stances against immigrants, against non-whites, against non-Christians? Can he be appeased? Should he be appeased? Does trying to work with him count as treason? As betrayal? Could small betrayals become necessary to shore up against larger, more terrifying damage?
Try the quotes above, at least. And watch this. Those who do not remember the undead past are condemned to re-read it.
“Allegiance” plays on Dec. 13 at Pacific Place 11, 600 Pine Street in Seattle; and Lincoln Square Cinemas, 700 Bellevue Way East in Bellevue.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.