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‘This is my legacy project’ - George Takei talks ‘Allegiance’

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Lea Salonga and George Takei in a scene from the Broadway musical "Allegiance." The musical is based on Takei's real-life story of being forced into an internment camp for Japanese Americans with his parents and siblings following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Before closing on Broadway, "Allegiance" was filmed for theatrical release and is being prepared now for release on DVD and Blu-ray. Takei says it has become his life's mission to raise awareness of what happened to Japanese Americans in order to prevent history from repeating itself. Lea Salonga and George Takei in a scene from the Broadway musical "Allegiance." The musical is based on Takei's real-life story of being forced into an internment camp for Japanese Americans with his parents and siblings following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Before closing on Broadway, "Allegiance" was filmed for theatrical release and is being prepared now for release on DVD and Blu-ray. Takei says it has become his life's mission to raise awareness of what happened to Japanese Americans in order to prevent history from repeating itself. (photo by Matthew Murphy)

I was recently granted the extraordinary opportunity to interview one of my childhood heroes. I’ve been a fan of actor and director George Takei for many years, dating back to the early years of Star Trek’s initial syndication. Being only five years of age when the final episode of the original series first aired, I was part of the show’s second wave of young fans that found it through repeats on local TV stations.

On Star Trek, George Takei as Lt. Sulu was the man. Always cool and collected, he could say more with a facial expression than most everyone else aboard the Enterprise, with the possible exception of Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock. When Captain Kirk wanted to haul ass to escape the Klingons or to explore the next strange new world, it was Mr. Sulu whom he directed to put the ship into warp speed. Didn’t every kid use that phrase when shifting gears on their bike? They probably still do.

We learned more about Mr. Sulu in the later Star Trek films but an important fact about the man who portrayed him on-screen was unknown to many fans until more recent times.

Beginning at age five, George Takei, with his family, endured a dark chapter in American history when upwards of 120,000 Japanese Americans living in the United States were forced out of their homes and into internment camps by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt following Japan’s attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor.

It’s shocking today to think that it actually happened here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. As Takei explains in the following interview, he has made it his life’s mission to make sure that we never forget the truth about those painful years - and because history has a tendency to repeat itself - to ensure that it never happens again.

Takei’s story was adapted for the Broadway musical “Allegiance,” featuring music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, and a book by Marc Acito, Kuo and Lorenzo Thione.

“Allegiance” premiered in San Diego in 2012 and played on Broadway from October 2015 to February 2016. A filmed version of the performance, along with a documentary chronicling the show’s creation – titled “Allegiance to Broadway” - was screened in more than 600 theatres around the country earlier this month. Both are being prepared now for release on DVD and Blu-ray and can be pre-ordered at www.AllegianceMusical.com.

As I transcribed my interview with George Takei, it occurred to me that its appearance in The Maine Edge would be best presented with little interruption from me. It’s his story delivered as eloquently – in THAT voice - as you would expect from George Takei.

(At the risk of having my Star Trek fan club membership card revoked, I should tell you up front that I did not to ask any questions related either to the TV series or the movies. We discussed only two subjects – Maine winters and the story of “Allegiance.”)

What was originally scheduled to be a 10-minute interview turned into a 35-minute conversation; that conversation is presented here with only the tiniest of contextual tinkering from me.

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George Takei:

I have very good memories of visiting Maine. In February 2015, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at Colby College in Waterville during the annual student S.H.O.U.T week, which was a celebration of multiculturalism.

I had never seen so much snow in my life. There was so much snow, it was actually higher than the motel that we stayed at. In Maine, you carve corridors through the snow for the sidewalks. The cold was unbelievable. I didn’t know that the cold could be that painful. You Mainers are built of sturdy things. Whatever it is that you guys do to keep going in that cold, I hope you never stop. I am awestruck by the people of Maine who go about their lives in such extreme weather. It’s a whole different universe there. Here in southern California where I live, we have nothing but blue sky and golden sunshine and the birds are singing.

“Allegiance” is a project that is very near and dear to my heart and it has become my mission in life to raise America’s awareness on that dark and shameful chapter of American history. This is how it began for me.

It is indelibly printed on my brain. My parents woke me up very early one morning along with my brother who was a year younger and my baby sister who was not yet one year old.

They dressed us hurriedly and then told us to wait in the living room while my parents did some last-minute packing back in the bedroom. My brother and I were gazing out the front window when we suddenly saw two soldiers marching up our driveway. They carried rifles with shiny bayonets flashing in the sun. They stomped up the front porch and with their fists they began pounding on the door. It was a terrifying sound. My father came out from the bedroom and answered the door. Literally at gunpoint – here in America – we were ordered out of our home.

I remember the terror of that morning so deeply. My father gave my brother and me small packages to carry out while he carried two heavy suitcases. We followed him out onto the driveway. When my mother finally came out, she had my baby sister on one arm and a huge duffel bag in the other. Tears were streaming down her cheek. That horror – that scary morning – is permanently imbedded in my memory.

We were taken from our home in Los Angeles first to the horse stables of the Santa Anita race track along with more than 18,000 other Japanese-Americans. We were assigned a horse stall, still pungent with the smell of horse manure. From a two-bedroom home on Garnet St. in Los Angeles to a smelly horse stall. The camps were still being built so that horse stall became our home for a couple of months.

After that, we were put on a train and transported across the country to the swamps of Arkansas. My father told us that we were going on a long vacation to a different place. For me as a five-year old kid, it was an exotic adventure. We were surrounded by steamy bayous and we would catch pollywogs in the creek and put them in jars. We could also hear strange animal sounds originating from beyond the barbed-wire fences and I imagined those sounds were coming from dinosaurs. Outside of the fence, I called it “the jungle” but it was really just the forest.

Children are amazingly adaptable; I became accustomed to the regimentation. We lined up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall. I regularly went with my father and brother to a mass shower and I started school in a black tar-papered barrack. We began each school day with the pledge of allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed-wire fence and the sentry tower right outside of the schoolhouse window as I recited the words “and liberty and justice for all.” I was too young to understand the stinging irony in those words.

While we were in Arkansas, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps in Arizona, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and two of the most isolated places in California.

After the war, hostility and racism toward Japanese-Americans was still very strong. My parents’ generation worked their fingers to the bones to get back on their feet after everything had been taken.

In the 1970s, my generation began a movement to get an official apology and redress for the incarceration that took place more than 30 years earlier. In 1980, President Carter organized a congressional commission to gather information on the internment and I testified in front of Congress at that time.

Finally, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act and officially apologized for the incarceration on behalf of the federal government. The act granted each internee the sum of $20,000 but only surviving internees received payment. My father – the one who bore most of the burden and pain, the anguish, rage and humiliation in my family - had passed in 1979. My mother – as his widow – did not get his share of the redress. In order to receive it, you had to be alive at the signing of the bill.

As a child, I had lived through it, but I didn’t feel the pain and the loss as my parents did. In total, $1.6 billion was paid out but that $20,000 did not begin to repay what my parents had lost. We lost our home, our dry-cleaning business, our bank account – everything was taken from us.

I contributed my $20,000 payment to the founding of the Japanese-American National Museum. Subsequently, I’ve contributed much more as I’ve felt the money belonged there. What we wanted to do with the museum was to institutionalize the story so the truth of what happened won’t fade when the last of my generation is gone. To make America a better country, we need to learn from history, but we seem to forget those lessons so easily.

The birth of “Allegiance”

I was in New York in 2008 with my husband Brad; we practically live in theatres when we are in New York City. One night, we went to see the Off-Broadway show “Forbidden Broadway.” Sitting directly in front of us were two gentlemen we now know as (Broadway composer and producer) Jay Kuo and (Tony-nominated producer) Lorenzo Thione. Jay recognized my voice and we had a brief conversation before the show and again at intermission.

The very next evening, Brad and I went to see the Broadway musical “In the Heights.” We had aisle seats and I looked down our row to see two arms waving at us. It was the same two gentlemen from the previous evening only this time we were all sitting in the same row! We waved back and Brad jokingly whispered to me “I think they’re stalking us.”

I maintain that those two meetings were not a coincidence. Our meeting was preordained. Someone was pulling the strings that brought us together two nights in a row. Those two meetings brought us together and it turned out to be the birth of “Allegiance.”

“Allegiance” was in development for a few years before its debut and eventual move to Broadway in 2015. Before its run ended, we filmed two performances – one with a full house and a stationary camera to capture audience reactions and one without an audience with multiple cameras set up throughout the theatre. We used a crane for aerial and panning shots. We used film technique to tell the story of the Broadway production. It was recently screened in 657 theatres throughout the country and will be available soon on DVD and Blu-ray.

In “Allegiance,” I play the character Sam Kimura in the present day – naturally – because that character is me. I also play the 1940s grandfather character – Ojii-Chan.

Lea Salonga – with her glorious voice – plays Kei Kimura, Sam’s sister. Telly Leung plays me as a young man and he is an extraordinarily gifted young actor. He is currently on Broadway playing the title role in Disney’s “Aladdin.” Michael K. Lee portrays Frankie Suzuki - a role which won him the Craig Noel Award for Outstanding Featured Performance in a Musical. (His character is based on real-life political activist Frank S. Emi). We lucked out with an incredible cast of gifted Asian-Americans.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Lea Salonga sing one of the songs from “Allegiance.” During the early stages of development, Jay was here in Los Angeles. As it turned out, Lea was here giving a concert at the same time. Since we have a grand piano in the living room, we invited her to come over to sing some of the songs that Jay had written for the show. To hear Lea’s voice resonating throughout our home on one of the first songs Jay had written for “Allegiance” was an absolutely thrilling experience. She fell in love with Jay’s music that night and that is how we got her to join the cast.

I later learned that when Lea was in our living room, she was tweeting about the experience. “Oh wow, I’m in Sulu’s living room,” she wrote. I thought it was funny.

“Allegiance” is my legacy project because it has become my mission in life to raise awareness of that shameful chapter in American history.

In my childhood, I was placed behind barbed wire fences, and professionally, I seem to be developing a career out of being placed behind barbed wire fences. Beginning in January, I will spend five months in Canada working on a miniseries for AMC called “The Terror” which will tell the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. You should see it in the fall of 2019.

I sincerely hope that all of you in Maine will enjoy the film version of “Allegiance” which will be available soon, as well as the making-of documentary “Allegiance to Broadway.”

Live long and prosper.

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