Breaking News Emails
A new musical that tells one story of Japanese-American internment will make its debut on Broadway on Nov. 8.
Inspired by actor and activist George Takei's early life, "Allegiance" brings to the stage the story of a brother and sister in an internment camp during World War II. Though Takei was young during the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941, the actor says he remembers when he had to leave his Los Angeles home and was forced to move to Arkansas.
"It's an incredible, thrilling, amazing time for me," Takei said on the TODAY show in October. "I've been sharing this story all my life, from the time I was in college, but I, at that time, didn't quite imagine it as a musical."
According to Densho, a nonprofit organization that aims to record and share the stories of Japanese-American internment, approximately 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent were relocated during World War II.
The former "Star Trek" actor will make his Broadway debut as Sam Kimura, while Telly Leung—who has appeared in Broadway's Rent and Glee—portrays a young Sam. Tony Award-winning singer and actress Lea Salonga also makes her return to Broadway in "Allegiance."
Leung told NBC News that, with a cast that is majority Asian American, "Allegiance," along with shows like "Hamilton" and "On Your Feet," signals a shift toward increased representation of diverse stories on stage.
"This is the perfect season for 'Allegiance' to happen because there are so many shows right now that are stories about and by people of color," Leung said. "People will look back in time and go, '2015 was a landmark year on the Broadway stage for people of color.'"
The last Broadway show to feature an Asian-led cast was the 2002 revival of "Flower Drum Song," which Salonga also starred in.
Leung, who worked with Salonga in 'Flower Drum Song,' said even though he is Chinese American, he can relate to his character on a personal level: both are sons of immigrant parents and straddle the two cultures of the Asian-American hyphenate.
"I feel like it's an important story for all Americans to see, but also at the end of the day, the musical is about this family and the community that endured with dignity and pride."
The 35-year-old actor added that he has learned much about "this untold story of American history" through Takei and "Allegiance."
"It was a little shocking to me when I first learned this part of our history, but also, I'm finding it's surprising and shocking to so many people who come to see 'Allegiance,' whether it was in San Diego during the world premiere [in 2012] or now that we're on Broadway," Leung said. "I've had all people of all different backgrounds and races come to me and say this story has resonated with them."
But "Allegiance" has not come without its controversies. In a statement released last month, the Japanese American Citizens League expressed concern over the musical's telling of history:
"The JACL appreciates the effort by Mr. Takei to bring the story of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II to a wide audience. However, it is important to keep in mind that this musical is an artistic interpretation of events that provide a backdrop for a love story. Although most of the characters, which are loosely based on individuals, have fictional names, the JACL is disturbed by the play’s use of the names of the Japanese American Citizens League and of Mike Masaoka. The JACL is concerned that by using actual names, audience members may forget that they are watching a historical fiction."
Mike Masaoka, former JACL leader, was an "influential but controversial figure in the history of the Japanese American incarceration," according to Densho. Although he opposed the relocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, Masaoka wrote in his 1987 autobiography that the ""JACL urged its members to cooperate with authorities, buy war bonds, volunteer for civil defense units, sign up for first-aid classes and donate blood, look for good newspaper publicity, and, in short, do everything to project a favorable patriotic image."
In a 2012 blog post, after the world premiere of "Allegiance" in San Diego, "Conscience and the Constitution" director Frank Abe wrote that the portrayal of Masaoka in Takei's stage sent the wrong message.
"Make no mistake, the real Mike and the real JACL bear plenty of responsibility for waiving Japanese American rights at the height of war and racial hysteria," Abe, whose film focuses on the organized resistance to the internment of Japanese Americans, wrote. "But by setting up Masaoka as the antagonist of the piece, the show gets to take the focus off wartime America’s responsibility for accepting the mass eviction and incarceration, lest the predominantly white New York theater audience for whom this work is intended squirm in their seats – especially in a city just 11 years removed from its own 21st century experience of a Pearl Harbor."
Actor Greg Watanabe, who plays Masaoka in the Broadway staging of "Allegiance," responded to the criticism last month in an email to Broadway actress and blogger Erin Quill.
"I’m not sure how you could fictionalize the JACL in a story about the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans…I suppose you could not talk about them at all, as other stories about the incarceration have. But in a play (or musical), it’s possible to be historically factual, and still express an opinion," Watanabe said, adding that he felt the representation of Masaoka was balanced. "I believe it’s perfectly legitimate to create a fictional narrative based on actual events, and reference actual organizations and public historical figures like the JACL and Mike Masaoka."
In addition to the historical story, "Allegiance" also tells a more human story about resilience.
"I feel like it's an important story for all Americans to see, but also at the end of the day, the musical is about this family and the community that endured with dignity and pride," Leung said. "So I hope that audiences leave feeling the sense that we as human beings have an inner strength and a power to endure even though we don't think we can."