George Takei, Actor, "Allegiance"
Related Story: Behind The Scenes Of 'Allegiance'
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Allegiance is a musical making its world premiere this week at the old Globe theater. It focuses on the Japanese-American internment. Producers have high hopes of taking the plaintiff probably. Allegiance stars George Takei, probably best known to people as Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando interviewed Takei before rehearsal last Friday.
BETH ACCOMANDO: This play allegiance came about kind of by happenstance by a chance meeting you had with the creators. Tommy a little bit about how you first met them.
GEORKE TAKEI: Well not really by happenstance because this has been a mission in my life to raise the awareness of the internment of American history. But, the creative people with this show and I got together is a fortuitous and the prophetic meeting it happened in a Broadway theater. We went to the theater one night and there were these two guys seated in front of us. One of them recognized my voice and we had a nice chat chat. The next night we went to see in the Heights. And not in front of us this time, but in the very same row a few seats away were the same two guys. If you know the play in the heights it is about a Puerto Rican family in New York. And near the end of the first act, the father has a song called “inutil” which means useless. And for some odd reason that chart: triggered my memory of the English of my father particularly but both my parents were experiencing in the Arkansas internment camp during the second world war. And it touched me so that I was in tears. And of course the inhibition comes immediately after that and the lights go glazing on and I'm quickly trying to dry my tears when the two guys came over to chat chat again. They asked me why I was in tears and I told them. They happen to be Lorenzo Gianni and Jane Crow. Jay is the composer lyricist and Lorenzo is the writer producer. So the conversation began during that brief intermission.. And they took great interest in the subject.
BETH ACCOMANDO: You've described this as your legacy project and what do you mean by that?
GEORKE TAKEI: Well my father used to say both the strength and the weakness of our democracy is in the fact that it is a people's democracy. It can be as great as people can be but it is as fallible as people are. Our democracy faltered during the second world war. I believe it is important for this nation to know and learn from where we faltered. I think we learn more from those chapters that we do from the glorious chapters that we have plenty of. And the internment story is still little known and even less understood. And so I do feel that with this musical that is going to reach many many people, reached in by the heart as well as the mind is going to make people want, discuss, and then do something about it, to make our democracy a true democracy.
BETH ACCOMANDO: And what are some of your most vivid memories related to the internment camps?
GEORKE TAKEI: Well I was a five-year-old when we were incarcerated. My most vivid memory I think is that date when the soldiers, two soldiers came marching up our driveway. They had bayoneted rifles and I remember the glinting of those bayonets, they stomped up our front porch and banged on the front door and ordered our family out. But, being a child from 5 to 8 years old, my other memories are that if a child. Very innocent. Lots of fun. And in retrospect and particularly as a teenager discussing our family with my father particularly that I have that story in context.
BETH ACCOMANDO: This is a very serious topic, yet the play finds a lot of places for humor and especially through your character. What is the importance do feel of using humor to engage people when they are watching a play like this?
GEORKE TAKEI: Well, it reaches the whole person and that is also the true experience. Yes it was torturous and harrowing. At times. But, people still fell in love. They got married. Had children. So, there was joy. You can't survive something like that with all grim suffering. We made our joy. We were to table below we could carry, some people packed only to things that they thought they would absolutely need. Yet, some women felt that their kimonos were essentially enough. To take with them. And on a moon festival night all of the sudden cut dark. Background of black tarpaper barracks all in military uniform would explode with colors. The women were in their kimonos and we heard Japanese folksongs and they danced and rhythm to that. He was beautiful. And so you know there were joyful moments and we reflect that as well as the harrowing experiences.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Tell me a little bit about doing this production because I understand it is still a work in progress. So are you still getting changes and script changes at the last minute?
GEORKE TAKEI: We are creating an original musical. It is a work in progress, and that is very intensely challenging. We get rewrites that morning and we are rehearsing it and performing that night. Sometimes you know it is very tough. But we tough it through.
BETH ACCOMANDO: I think you saw in Facebook you said, say a little prayer for me I just got new pages.
GEORKE TAKEI: Yes, answered prayers.
BETH ACCOMANDO: So let's hear little from a scene that has gone through some changes. This is a scene between you and your granddaughter played by Leah Salonga.
GEORKE TAKEI: You on fire
NEW SPEAKER: What
GEORGE TAKEI: He rather put on dance tonight.
NEW SPEAKER: I didn't want Bob to find him when he's in one of those moods you know how these to get.
GEORGE TAKEI: Well you know go to dance.
NEW SPEAKER: I don't run with that crowd.
GEORGE TAKEI: Japanese (inaudible)
NEW SPEAKER: A pretty lady
GEORGE TAKEI: Should not seek
NEW SPEAKER: That's not a proverb.
GEORKE TAKEI: No, but should be. Go, have fun.
BETH ACCOMANDO: This is the first time you're doing a musical right?
GEORKE TAKEI: No actually not the very first musical I did was right out of college. I was a theater student at UCLA. That was back in the late 50s early 60s. I was cast in this civil rights musical called Fly Blackbird. I was the lone Asian amongst the students. Fighting for civil rights for African-Americans and for American, the American way. And I have a song with the lyric titled the gong song. Why is the word, we were playing with Oriental, not Asian. Why is an Oriental detective always accompanied by a gong? Criticizing Hollywood stereotypes. That was my very first musical what, 50 years ago.
BETH ACCOMANDO: So it sounds like political activism and your art have been intertwined from the very beginning.
GEORKE TAKEI: That's correct it was a civil rights musical. We sang at a civil rights rally where Dr. Martin Luther King was a speaker and we got a chance to meet him privately after the concert and it was an absolutely unforgettable thrill. To briefly chat with him and shake his hand.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Do you think your interest in politics stems from your father and what he taught you?
GEORKE TAKEI: Well when I was a teenager I had these intense discussions with my father. My father felt that it was the absence of Japanese Americans in the mainstream of American society which includes politics was in part what contributed to the ease with which we were incarcerated. And so before I was even of voting age my father took me to the Adlai Stevenson for Pres. Headquarters and he volunteered me, but also a political campaign has a lot of theatrical elements which kind of said my inborn nature I think. There is suspense there is excitement there is you know, build build build and ecstatic elation or black tragedy.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Now you've reached a point of popularity with social media and twitter and Facebook.
GEORKE TAKEI: Don't forget Star Trek and Howard Stern.
BETH ACCOMANDO: I mean all these things have converged to make you this kind of social media superstar. Do you feel obligated to kind of use that to help advance some of these issues they believe in?
GEORKE TAKEI: Indeed I do and I do use my Facebook for some advocacy. You know you want to hold your audience and you do not hold them with all advocacy, or I'll education. Overall awareness raising. You throw in some giggles and some (inaudible) and some humor and you keep them coming daily. You feed them with fun and humor.
BETH ACCOMANDO: There are a lot of younger celebrities and stars out there who haven't managed to master things like Facebook and Twitter. Has that surprised you? Is this something that kind of took you a little by surprise?
GEORKE TAKEI: It has taken me by surprise. I am really thrown aback by this because to be honest it began as a way to get the word out on allegiance. And you know we want them particularly because the subject matter as I said is so little known. Or, not known at all by some parts of the country. That we needed to get the word out on allegiance but give people some background, some understanding of what allegiance is about. So I begin with my core base which are sci-fi fans. The nerds and geeks and I thought you know if I can get their activist, if I can get them energized we can get them to buy tickets, and then see the show and spread the word. But then it continued to grow this amazing thing called social media it just grown and grown like topsy and here we are. I had no idea it would go past a quarter, 2.5 million people. I'm still of my generation and I am absolutely astounded by the success that my Facebook has enjoyed.
BETH ACCOMANDO: But you also use your celebrity to also be active for gay rights as well.
GEORKE TAKEI: Absolutely it is the same issue. We were incarcerated by very real barb wire fences but the LGBT group is another group of Americans incarcerated by legalistic barb wire fences. In the case of the incarceration of Japanese Americans we look different. We look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. But, with the LGBT community we are naturally members of our family. We are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers in some cases. And to deny equality to our own flesh and blood is to me the list most inhuman and irrational act. It is the same issue. Our inability to recognize that quality is what America is all about.
BETH ACCOMANDO: What are you most proud of in this play, allegiance.
GEORKE TAKEI: You know it is hard to take one look, take one thing. The performers are glorious. But you know it is the whole theatrical experience that really makes that statement. I am most proud of that entire statement and the final element after technical that we've added to the whole production is the audience. Every single night we have outstanding ovations. It is a glorious feeling. And it is showing that the message of display and the joy as well as the profound in statement about our democracy is being shared that's why most proud of.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Well thank you very much
GEORKE TAKEI: Thank you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is George Takei and cast in music from the new musical allegiance. He was interviewed by KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando. Be sure to join us again tomorrow for conversations on San Diego's top stories right here in Midday Edition on KPBS FM. I am Maureen Cavanaugh and thank you for listening.
[Music from the musical]
NEW SPEAKER: If I go to that dance the only blossom I will be is a wallflower.
GEORKE TAKEI: You are like the seed.