Lea Salonga, George Takei & Telly Leung (Image via Fathom Events)
George Takei, the out 81-year-old Star Trek icon and social media phenomenon, still gets fired up discussing his family's internment under orders by FDR during WWII.
Speaking from California shortly before the spate of deadly wildfires there, he recounted for me the unconscionable hardship faced by Japanese Americans during this period, which included having their bank accounts frozen and being literally imprisoned without any charges ever being filed, all because the U.S. government decided their ethnicity trumped their citizenship. “The roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were sent to 10 barbed-wire prison camps in the most godawful places in this country. All desolate, isolated. There were two camps in the blistering-hot desert of Arizona. There was another camp in the swamps of Arkansas. There were camps in the high, windswept, cold plains of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and two of the most desolate places in California.”
“I mean, can you imagine this?” he asks, still incredulous after over 70 years.
You don't have to imagine it. Instead, you can take in Allegiance to Broadway: The Dream. The Story. The Journey of a Musical at more than 600 theaters December 4, and then a dynamic, filmed version of George Takei's Allegiance, the Broadway musical starring Takei, Lea Salonga and Telly Leung on December 11. The acclaimed production captures the dark chapter in American history in a unique way, and the Fathom Events premieres will allow audiences who missed the show's record-breaking run in San Diego and on Broadway to be entertained, to look within and to learn.
“We were looked at with fear and suspicion and outright hatred,” Takei remembers of the period covered by the show and its accompanying doc. Just 5 years old at the time, he was incarcerated with his family in a camp in Arkansas, and has never forgotten the outrage he felt over the basic unfairness in the situation. “Young Japanese Americans — like all Americans — rushed to their recruitment centers to volunteer to defend their country. Their patriotism was answered with a slap in the face: the military categorized them as 'enemy aliens' and denied them military service. It was totally irrational to call people that are volunteering to fight for this country — possibly die for this country — the enemy.”
Equally irrational was that second word: alien. That slur made the formation of the camps possible by dehumanizing Japanese Americans. “We were born here, raised here, educated here. We were Americans! We were imprisoned in our homes at night. Our bank accounts were frozen, our life savings became totally inaccessible... We were impoverished.”
The treatment visited on Japanese Americans during WWII was so un-American, Takei says many young Americans are “unbelieving” when they first hear of it. And yet, as he points out, the situation should sound familiar when one considers the plight of modern-day Dreamers, and of immigrants who come to the U.S. out of desperation, only to be met with more challenges.
“That's why Allegiance is so important,” Takei warns. “Because we don't know this chapter of American history, we're repeating it again. Traumatized people fleeing violence and poverty with their children only to have their children ripped away from them, then put in cages, and then scattered across the country. Given away. This is a new low in cruelty. That's why it's so important to know this history.”
The show itself is a marvel, but the documentary was created to maximize its reach while also appealing to audiences intrigued by the innerworkings of taking a show to Broadway. The result is a supplemental film filled with the trials and tribulations of show biz, including what Takei says was the most suspenseful part — whether they would even be able to secure a theater!
“We only have something like 37 theaters on Broadway,” he points out, “and they're all occupied or some are available only for limited runs, and we wanted an open-ended run. I went with our producer to meetings with Bob Wankel, head of the Shubert Organization. Because everyone is appealing to him for a theater, he has that glower on his face. He looks like the classic theater villain! He's really a theater lover deep down inside, but because of his business, he has that terrible expression on his face and we had to face up to that and sell him.”
Spoiler alert: The show must and did go on, leading to what Takei describes as joy and exhilaration.
Takei's own show has been going on and on since the 1950s, when he landed his first credit providing a voice in a Godzilla flick. He quickly began making legit appearances on such TV shows as Playhouse 90 and The Californians, even classics like Perry Mason (all 1959) and The Twilight Zone (1964), along with acting in movies like Ice Palace (1960). The roles were mostly confined to one-dimensional ethnic characters, but looking back, Takei always brought depth to his work — even if it sometimes had to be silent.
His big break came playing Sulu on the original Star Trek (1966-1969), a role he has since reprised throughout his life, and that has become a gigantic part of his legacy. He was a Japanese American who was an equal in an ensemble cast on a national TV show just about 20 years after being imprisoned for looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Did he ever dream, back then, that some of the most important work he would ever do, work tied to his experience as an American held captive by Americans, would come 50 years after he debuted as Sulu?
“At that time, I was just hoping to build a career as an actor,” he admits. “I had already talked in school about my childhood imprisonment — I felt that was a mission in my life and my responsbility as an American citizen. Later on, when my career started getting some stability, then I started to dream and hope. But back in the '50s, I wasn't dreaming of telling my story on Broadway, of all places.”
Another aspect of his career that would have been unimaginable back in the day — his supremacy on social media. Though he points out that Star Trek helped pave the way for that late-career transition. “On Star Trek, I was surrounded by futuristic technology that was all fictional then, science fiction, but they had a lot of technologically educated writers writing for Star Trek, and I met some really forward-thinking people. My mind, thanks to Star Trek, was already tuned in to technology.”
If one of his greatest roles greased the wheels for his embrace of the Internet, his other greatest role eventually provided the impetus for cracking the code of social media. “Back in the '90s, when that device called a computer came on the scene, I thought, 'What a wonderful way to keep in touch with fans, and I don't have to respond to fan mail by typewriter; I can do it very expeditiously.'”
Via a twice-monthly blog, Takei was able to keep in touch with fans, and when the development of Allegiance began in earnest, he realized he should use his Internet fanbase to try to educate people about the subject matter. “We were investing all our energy and talent and creativity on a musical, so I knew we had to raise awareness. I started using social media to talk about my childhood imprisonment, but we needed to grow my audience base.”
It was another Internet sensation who provided Takei with a simple roadmap to success. “Through trial and error, we started experimenting with various ways of increasing viewership. We noticed Grumpy Cat got the most likes and shares, so we tried some cat memes, but we analyzed that and saw that it was the humor people were attracted to. We did more humor and as the audience grew, we started talking about Allegiance.”
Now that Takei is slaying social media, he allows that it occasionally slays him. For every successful engagement, there is a bot or a troll. “I was totally enamored of it at first,” he says. “It's turned into a love-hate situation. Now, we're discovering the dark underbelly. Even more insidious, it's global and we know now about the Russian hacking of our election. It's invading our political discourse in the most Machiavellian way. It's turned into a monster. We've got to find a way to be able to control this amazing technological device.”
This last election proved the days of sitting idly by are over. Looking to #resist? Takei Tees represent the future we want and the changes we need. Wear them loudly and proudly, friends. Get yours today! https://t.co/RjR1bnl69Y pic.twitter.com/ASzvA7hDIX— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) November 9, 2018
Until then, he's still masterfully directing it for good — bringing laughter, incisive political observations and awareness of the brilliance of Allegiance to the Web for those times when ogling another twink on a beach in Bali just doesn't elicit the “oh, my!” it used to.
Catch Allegiance to Broadway in select movie theaters December 4 at 7:30 p.m. local time and George Takei's Allegiance in select movie theaters December 11 at 7:30 p.m. local time. Tickets: AllegianceMusical.com.