George Takei has, over the years, lent his gently charismatic presence to many stages — the original Star Trek soundstage, where he played the USS Enterprise’s Mr. Sulu, then the social media stage, where he emerged as a leading activist for gay and lesbian rights. Now, Takei is making his Broadway stage debut in Allegiance, a musical inspired by his childhood experience in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.
The 78-year-old actor’s dressing room is close to the stage — so he doesn’t have to climb stairs — and surprisingly spare and tiny, with barely enough space for a few costumes, a teapot and a cast photo. Takei describes it as “a large closet,” and he bursts into laughter at the observation that a closet seems like an unlikely setting for the actor today.
“I thought I came out of the closet in 2005!” he agrees. That’s when Takei went public about his 27-year-relationship with the man who’s now his husband. He says he could never have imagined, as a TV star in the 1960s, what his life could have looked like in 2015.
“Who would have thunk that we’d have marriage equality from border to border,” he marvels. “And who would’ve thunk that we would have been dealing with a shameful chapter of American history on the Broadway stage as a musical?”
“In the spring of 1942, soldiers with bayonets marched up to our home in Los Angeles and ordered our family out,” he says on the Allegiance recording. “Our only crime was looking like the people who’d bombed Pearl Harbor only months before.”
Back then, Takei was 5 years old, one of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans rounded up and imprisoned behind barbed wire. He remembers his mother weeping inconsolably, neighbors watching in silence as the Takeis were taken from their home. The family lost everything they could not carry. They were imprisoned behind barbed wire for almost three years and told to renounce their loyalty to Japan’s emperor.
“We’re Americans,” Takei says. “And for the government to assume that we have an organic, genetic, racial loyalty to the emperor was insulting. It was outrageous.”
Allegiance‘s theme remains relevant, Takei says, in a post-Sept. 11 world where immigrants and certain ethnic and religious groups are often demonized. As it happens, the show’s composer, Jay Kuo, is also a civil rights lawyer. He says Allegiance‘s creators threw themselves into researching life in the camps, but they also relied on the memories of George Takei.
“George’s mother used to say to him while he was waiting in the bathroom line in the freezing cold, she would say, ‘Georgie, gaman.’ And it means ‘to endure with dignity,'” Kuo says.
That word, gaman, became a foundational concept for the entire musical. One character is a law student who expresses his patriotism through protesting on behalf of civil rights. Another enlists in the military to prove his loyalty to the country. The latter’s sister is played by another Asian-American entertainment icon, Lea Salonga, best known for her role in the original Miss Saigon. Allegiance is not based specifically on Takei’s experience during WWII. He says he wanted to do it partly because of the conversations he had about it afterward, as a teenager, with his father.
“Sometimes those discussions got very heated,” he remembers. “In one discussion, I said, ‘Daddy, you led us like sheeps to slaughter into the internment camp.’ And all of a sudden, he was silent and I knew immediately I had hurt him. And then he looked at me and said, ‘Well, maybe you’re right.’ And he got up and walked into his bedroom and closed the door.”
“I felt terrible,” Takei says. “I wounded him.”
That conversation has haunted George Takei. He meant to apologize, but somehow, never got around to it. “And so Allegiance is my apology to my father,” he says. “Every night.”
An apology — and a reminder of a history that every American shares.