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Behind The Scenes Of 'Allegiance'

"Allegiance" looks not just to the Japanese American internment but also to Japanese Americans who served in the war.
The Old Globe Theater
"Allegiance" looks not just to the Japanese American internment but also to Japanese Americans who served in the war.

New Musical At Globe Aims For Broadway

Behind The Scenes Of 'Allegiance'
George Takei calls "Allegiance" his "legacy project." Listen to the Star Trek actor and social media superstar talk about why he has so much invested in this new musical at the Globe about the Japanese American internment.

George Takei calls "Allegiance" his "legacy project." Listen to the Star Trek actor and social media superstar talk about why he has so much invested in this new musical at the Globe about the Japanese American internment.

When Allegiance went into preview performances last month, it was still being tweaked says book writer Lorenzo Thione.

"It's like archeology, a story is down there it lies down there and you just have to dig it up."

"But what I have learned in sort of unearthing the story is that a lot has gone unspoken in 70 years," says composer Jay Kuo, "The Japanese American culture would sooner bury the indignity and the shame than speak about it. That was the way that things were for decades. It wasn't until generations had passed that people began asking more questions and these stories started to come out..."

Behind the Scenes of 'Allegiance' With George Takei

Stories like those of George Takei who was 5 when he was taken to a Japanese American internment camp.

"My most vivid memory I think is that day when the soldiers came marching up, two soldiers came marching up our driveway they had bayoneted rifles and I remember the glinting of those bayonets. Stomped up our front porch and banged on the front door and ordered our family out."

"We never thought in a million years that we would write a music set during the Japanese American internment," says Kuo,"but just hearing George tell that story you know when you're hearing a great story, you also realize this is a story, that for some reason has never been told on the big Broadway stage before."

As a composer, Kuo writes in the language of music and always saw the story as a musical: "What music does is liberate the spoken word into the emotional and the emotions that are buried underneath that haven't been spoken in so long are so intense that the music allows them to come out so lately I've been saying how could the story not be told through music."

George Takei on 'Allegiance'
GUESTGeorge Takei, Actor, "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.

For Takei it was important to tell this story about when the nation faltered: " I think we learn more from those chapters than we do from the glorious chapters that we have plenty of. And the internment story is still little known and even less understood."

"I knew about as much about the Japanese American internment as pretty much any American, which is very little," says Marc Acito who helped write the book for the play. Actress Lea Solanga says schools do little to inform students about the Japanese American internment.

Actress Lea Salonga says, " I remember a lot of kids that were saying we only got one paragraph of this entire abominable experience to this entire community of people, how do you encapsulate 4-5 years of what is incarceration in an internment camp, how do you encapsulate that in a paragraph in a textbook. You can't."

Even Kuo, who was a civil rights attorney and worked on cases involving the internment, felt he could learn more, " What I hadn't experienced on a personal level were a lot of the personal stories and so I found myself drawn in by diaries and poetry and art made by the internees incredible things that need to be given voice."

Something Takei felt was long overdue. But the tone of the play may surprise you with its humor and hope says Takei: "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."

"Because the reality is there were moments of lightness and life, just happening within the confines of barbed wire fences. A lot of the internees were farmers they were actually able to tame the ground and grow vegetables," adds Salonga.

"It was a doom and gloom situation in which they managed to bloom where they were planted and that's enormously inspiring," adds Acito.

The internment was more than just a violation of civil rights. It raised a divisive series of questions within the Japanese American community about where one's allegiance lies explains Kuo: "Does your allegiance for example lie with the country that did this to you, do you still pledge allegiance to the US even if your due process and equal rights have been violated."

For Takei's father the answer was a resounding yes, "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 also as fallible as people are."

Family members are also imperfect and the family at the center of the play are torn apart by more questions of allegiance sys Kuo, "Do you keep allegiance to a family when your family is fractured? Do you resist the government do you stand up even if it puts your family at risk."

Thione states, "For lack of a better term we always called this like the call your dad story because it's about that feeling of regret that can come when relationships get damaged and what can one do to really fix those and move forward."

"This was an event that fractured the Japanese American community 70 years ago. And it's still fractured to day and so we're still engaging with the community on that today and that means to me that these wounds are not completely healed and all of the things that we are talking about are still relevant," says Kuo."

"Allegiance" is groundbreaking not only for its subject but also for providing Asian American actors an opportunity to break out of stereotypes and play multi-dimensional roles.

"Everybody who is of Asian descent doing the show, it isn't lost on any one of us how big of an opportunity and how wonderful of a chance this is to tell a story like this one," concludes Salonga.

"Allegiance" runs at the Old Globe Theater through the newly extended date of October 28.