By Ed Rampell
Star Trek’s Sulu From the Screen to the Stage
George Takei may be best known for playing helmsman Lt. Sulu in the original Star Trek sci-fi series and six of the franchise’s subsequent movies. In recent years, he has become a social media icon: on Facebook he has over 10 million followers. But he also has strong ties to the live stage in Los Angeles and beyond.
Takei made his theatrical debut as a UCLA student in the 1950s and began professionally performing onstage by 1961 in Fly Blackbird! at Los Angeles’ Metro Theatre. Since then he has performed across the country and around the globe, from New York to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to England and beyond.
In 2005, Takei performed in Equus at East West Players. The company struck a chord with him. “I, together with actress Beulah Quo, led the fundraising effort to put the East West Players in the old Union Church, the first Japanese American Christian church in LA [circa] 1924,” Takei said in an interview with @ This Stage. “That congregation built another more modern church, and that was empty and deteriorating, and we saw that as a wonderful theatre for the East West Players, which was in 99-seat storefront theatre on Santa Monica Blvd. So we raised the funds, $2 million, to reuse that 240-seat theatre,” now called the David Henry Hwang Theatre.
The 52-year-old East West Players (EWP) – which bills itself as America’s “longest-running professional theatre of color” – relocated in 1998 to the space located in the Little Tokyo section of Downtown LA Takei, who has more than 200 screen acting credits, co-starred in the 2012 San Diego production of Allegiance opposite Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon). The musical went to Broadway in 2015.
Allegiance is now being mounted through April 1 by EWP, directed by its Artistic Director Snehal Desai, with an 11-piece orchestra conducted by Marc Macalintal. Takei is reprising his dual role as present day Sam Kimura and Ojii-chan (grandpa). However, as a co-production with the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, Allegiance isn’t being produced at EWP’s Hwang Theatre because, “our musical should be seen by a larger audience,” Takei insisted.
“We did it at San Diego and broke all records of The Old Globe Theatre,” Takei went on to say. “We still hold that record for box office. In New York, we reached New York audiences. When we closed there our producer, Lorenzo Thione, very presciently said, ‘we must capture this, because the story is so important and it needs to be known by as many people and be seen by as large an audience as possible.’ And he filmed it. We got Focus Features, who does these one night only screenings, to screen it on Dec. 7, 2016 [75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor sneak attack] and later on Feb. 19, the day [President] Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and we broke Fathom Events’ record for the biggest box office… So we moved Allegiance to the [JACC’s] 880-seat George Aratani Theatre,” located about two blocks south of the “too small” Hwang in Little Tokyo.
Allegiance is suggested by the wartime experiences of Takei and his family. However, the book by Marc Acito, Lorenzo Thione, and Jay Kuo, with music and lyrics by Kuo, fictionalizes the Takeis’ tribulations and diverges from the facts in order to dramatize the ordeal of the WWII internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry by the Roosevelt administration. The musical also boldly presents the divided loyalties and complicated emotions of the interned – many born in the USA and US citizens – towards America and Japan, as well as of relatives and members of the community towards one another.
According to Takei, Allegiance “traces pretty much the kind of decisions my parents made. I was five years old at the time. So I had to do lots of research, as well as many long–after dinner conversations with my father as a teenager. The part that’s not autobiographical is we were city people, we were here in LA; the [Kimura] family is a farm family in Salinas. My grandparents on my mother’s side were farmers in the Sacramento Delta. And my mother was born there in a small town which is now a suburb of Sacramento, Penryn. My father was the opposite of my mother – he was born in Japan but he lost his mother when he was a very young child, sort of like the Kimura family in the drama. My paternal grandfather was a paternal widower, so he came with his two boys to San Francisco [where] my father, who came when he was about seven, was educated. So he felt like an American. He spoke English fluently, as well as Japanese. My father was more like the Tatsuo [Kimura] character [Scott Watanabe], except he was a businessman in LA.”
In the musical, Sammy Kimura (Ethan Le Phong plays him as a young man) enlists in the Army and becomes a war hero in Europe, seeing combat with the “Fighting 442nd”, the fabled, highly decorated infantry regiment composed mainly of Americans of Japanese descent. On the other hand, Frankie Suzuki (Eymard Cabling) – a USC law student whose parents have been arrested and “disappeared” – resists the draft at the internment camp and weds Sammy’s sister Kei (Elena Wang plays the part Salonga originated). Conflicts and complications ensue – this is the heady stuff drama is made of and despite being a musical, Allegiance is no fluff.
“My parents were both ‘No-Nos’ on the loyalty questionnaire,” Takei explained. “It was very sloppily put together. It had to be responded to by everyone over the age of 17 [in the internment camps]. Question 27 asked essentially, ‘Will you bear arms to defend the USA?’ My parents’ attitude was, ‘They took everything from us and imprisoned us and now they want loyalty?’ Particularly, for my mother, who was in her mid-twenties with three young children, one an infant – she was supposed to bear arms to defend a nation that was imprisoning and impoverishing her family? It was preposterous.”
Takei went on to say, “Question 28 was one sentence with two conflicting ideas. It essentially asked: ‘Will you swear your loyalty to the USA and forswear your loyalty to the emperor of Japan?’ We were Americans – we hadn’t even thought of loyalty to the emperor. If you answered ‘no’ – meaning, I don’t have a loyalty to the emperor to forswear – that ‘no’ applied for the first part of the very same sentence, ‘Will you swear your loyalty to the US?’ For those that answered ‘yes,’ meaning, ‘I do swear my loyalty to the US,’ they were essentially confessing that they had been loyal to the emperor and were now prepared to forswear it and re-pledge your loyalty to the U.S. It was a very sloppily put together question.”
Three quarters of a century later, Takei still sounded outraged as he recounted, “My parents said, ‘This is not only stupid but insulting.’ And they both answered ‘no.’ And thousands of people answered no to those two preposterous questions. Because they [answered ‘no’] they were categorized as disloyal and the Tule Camp in northern California near the Oregon border was designated as a segregation center of all those that were ‘disloyal.’ Our family was sent from the first camp [Rohwer War Relocation Center], we were sent to in the swamps of Arkansas, two thirds of the way across the country [from LA], and brought back to California from the Tule Lake Camp… In that sense [Allegiance] follows my parents’ path during the internment period.”
This included a stint in the stables of the Santa Anita Racetrack stables because “The camps were still under construction when we were rounded up. The government designated certain places as assembly centers, [such as] the Santa Anita Racetrack. We were picked up from our home and taken to, unloaded, and herded over to the stable family and each family of comparable size to ours was assigned to a stable still pungent with the scent of horse manure. I remember that – but my reaction as a five year old was, ‘It’s gonna be kinda fun to sleep where the horseys sleep.’ So my real memories are quite different from my parents’.”
Modern Day Parallels
It’s easy to see why the aggrieved actor went on to become an activist, speaking out in social media platforms and elsewhere about LGBT rights, immigration, guns, and more. But the events in Allegiance are about 75 years old. What would he tell someone who thought this was all ancient history and no longer relevant today?
Takei laughed. “I don’t think too many people who come to see [Allegiance] have that reaction. It’s very relevant to our times. One of the first executive orders Donald Trump signed was the Muslim travel ban and it was an echo of Roosevelt’s broad brush categorizing us as potential spies, saboteurs, fifth columnists. With his broad brush Donald Trump categorized all Muslims, all people of the Muslim faith, as potential terrorists, which is crazy. You have to be more specific, more targeted, if you’re going to talk about some kind of immigration or entry into the US policy. It was again as stupid and cruel as Roosevelt’s executive order 9066.”
He continued, “And then to characterize immigrants coming from south of the border as all potential rapists, murderers, drug dealers is equally cruel and vacuous. Mexican Americans are all over our society. He characterized Judge [Gonzalo P.] Curiel, an Indiana-born Mexican American judge, as unfair because he’s of Mexican ancestry… The same kind of ignorant and cruel policy is reflected by Donald Trump. However, there is a dramatic difference between what happened to us 76 years ago and what’s happening today. When Donald Trump signed that Muslim travel ban thousands of young Americans throughout the country rushed to the airports to protest that executive order. And the Deputy Attorney General, Sally Yates, refused to defend that executive order. So this nation has progressed – except for one person, the president of the US.”
What’s next for the busy Asian American activist/actor? “I’ve been doing theater for the last five or six years. I followed Allegiance [on Broadway]… by doing Pacific Overtures [Off-Broadway] with the Classic Stage Company, directed by John Doyle, which was a real exciting experience for a theater actor. And I’m doing Allegiance again here. So my husband and I have given ourselves an opportunity to smell the flowers. We’re going on a European cruise and then to the theater at Edinburgh and London” – this time as members of the audience.
Allegiance, presented by East West Players, will be playing at the Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro Street, Los Angeles 90012 through April 1st. For more info and tickets see: http://allegiancemusical.com/.