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George Takei Takes Story Of Internment To The Stage

Sep 1, 2012
Originally published on September 1, 2012 10:18 pm

Today, George Takei is best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek series and, more recently, his hugely popular Facebook and Twitter feeds.

But his latest project aims to bring a different kind of story to the stage, one with personal and historical resonance. The actor was born in Los Angeles to a Japanese-American family just a few years before Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor. After that 1941 attack, he and his family were among the tens of thousands of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent who were forced to move to internment camps.

Now, Takei's childhood experience living in camps in Arkansas and California has inspired a new musical called Allegiance. Previews of the show are set to begin Sept. 7 at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

Takei plays two characters in the show: Ojii-San, the grandfather of a family in an internment camp, and Sam Kimura, a 77-year-old former internee whose story is told from the present day. Takei joined NPR's Scott Simon to discuss his experience of internment and the importance of remembering the darker chapters of American history.


Interview Highlights

On his own family's story of internment

"We were first taken from our home ... in Los Angeles to a horse stable at a race track, San Anita Race Track, near Los Angeles. And we were there for a few months while the camps were being built. And from there we were taken to the swamps of southeastern Arkansas. So, all the Japanese-Americans that were incarcerated followed that pattern: first, what's called an 'assembly center,' a very innocuous-sounding name, and from there to a 'relocation center,' another innocuous word."

On Sam Kimura and why he's described in the script as being "made of granite" with "so much buried inside"

"He is one of the thousands of young men who went from barbed-wire incarceration to [putting] on the same uniform as that of the sentries that guarded over us, and served in the military. He was sent over to the battlefields of Europe with an all Japanese-American, segregated unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and faced the hell of war, the horrors of war. And the 442nd Regimental Combat Team returned from those bloody battlefields as the single most decorated unit of the entire war. And the character I play is 'hard as granite' because he went through that hell and came back."

On what drove Japanese-Americans to enlist when their families were in internment camps

"I was invited to the White House when members of the 442nd were finally given the Medal of Honor, the highest military recognition that the nation can grant. And after the ceremony, I asked one of them, 'How were you able to do what you did when this government treated you and your family so shabbily?' And he said, 'Well, George, when I was a kid, I began the school day every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, and I meant every word of it. But this government didn't think that I was American enough and so, by gum, I went out there to show them what kind of American I am.

"But there [was] another group of people who I admire equally. They're the ones that said, 'Yes, I'm an American and I will fight for this country, but I won't go as an internee from behind these barbed wire fences, leaving my family in imprisonment. I will go only on the condition that I go as an American; that I can report to my hometown draft board with my family in our home, and then I will serve.' And for that courageous and principled stand, they were tried and found guilty of draft evasion and put into federal penitentiaries. And that is the drama of this musical."

On the significance of the piece of paper that Ojii-San folds into an origami flower for his granddaughter

"It was the sheet of paper that was to ascertain the loyalty of people that the government had imprisoned on the suspicion — merely the suspicion, not the guilt — of being potential spies, fifth columnists, traitors. Everyone over the age of 17 had to respond to it whether you were male or female, citizen or noncitizen. ... Question 27 asked 'Will you bear arms to defend the United States of America?' — this being asked of an 87-year-old immigrant lady as well as a 17-year-old young man. Even more insidious was the next question, Question 28. It asked, and I'm paraphrasing, but essentially it said, 'Will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and foreswear your loyalty to the emperor of Japan?' The government assumed that if you're born with this face — even if you're an American, never been to Japan — that we are born with an organic, inborn loyalty to the emperor. It was offensive and the amazing thing was that so many young people answered yes to those two offensive questions and went and served."

On why his family stayed on the West Coast after they got out of the camps

"We were from Los Angeles. We came back to Los Angeles because my parents didn't want to go to another unknown place that might be even more hostile in a different way. But indeed it was a different Los Angeles we came home to. Housing was next to impossible. Our first home was on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. And to us kids — I was the oldest, I was 8 years old when we came back — it was terrifying. All those scary, smelly, ugly [people] leaning on the walls or staggering around or falling right down in front of us on the sidewalk; the stench of urine on the street in the hallways everywhere. It was horrific. In fact, my baby sister said, 'Mama, let's go back home,' because we had adjusted to the routine of incarceration and it was home."

On how his performance in Allegiance fits into his career

"I see Allegiance as my legacy project. The story is very important to me and it's been my mission in life to raise Americans' awareness of that shameful chapter of American history. I think we learn more from those times in our history where we stumbled as a democracy than we learn from the glorious chapters. We have the history of slavery or inequality to women, and now the civil rights movement of the 21st century is the struggle for equality for the gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. And I think it's important for Americans to know about the times that we failed, and Allegiance tells that story."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

George Takei is still best known for voyaging where few men - and women - have gone before as Star Trek's Mr. Sulu. But now he's bringing a story to the stage that has personal resonance. It's called "Allegiance," a new musical set to premiere this month in San Diego, and it was inspired by George Takei's childhood experience living with his family in tar paper barracks behind barbed-wire fences. The Takeis were among the tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent who were moved into internment camps after Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

GEORGE TAKEI: We were first taken from our home on Garnet Street in Los Angeles to a horse stable at a race track - San Anita Race Track - near Los Angeles and we were there for a few months while the camps were being built. And from there, we were taken to the swamps of southeastern Arkansas.

SIMON: You play a couple of characters in this musical. One of them a present-day character, a man named Sam Kimura. He's 77 years old and a former internee. In the script, which we've been able to take a look at, he's described as being made of granite and having so much buried inside.

TAKEI: He is one of the thousands of young men who went from barbed-wire incarceration to put on the same uniform as that of the sentries that guarded over us and served in the military. He was sent over to the battlefields of Europe with an all Japanese-American segregated unit - the 442nd Regimental Combat Team - and faced the hell of war, the horrors of war. And the 442nd Regimental Combat Team returned from those bloody battlefields as the single most decorated unit of the entire war.

SIMON: Mr. Takei, I think...

TAKEI: You can call me George.

SIMON: George, OK - thank you, I will. George, I think enough time has passed and the U.S. government has officially apologized, that I can a question like this: why would a Japanese-American put on the uniform of the U.S. Armed Forces to fight for the United States if their family was in a camp?

TAKEI: Well, that's the question of this drama as well. I was invited to the White House when members of the 442nd - they were finally given the Medal of Honor, the highest military recognition that the nation can grant. And after the ceremony, I asked one of them, how were you able to do what you did when this government treated you and your family so shabbily? And he said, well, George, when I was a kid, I began the school day every morning with a pledge of allegiance to the flag and I meant every word of it. But this government didn't think that I was American enough. And so, by gum, I went out there to show them what kind of American I am.

But there were another group of people who I admired equally. They're the ones that said, yes, I'm an American and I will fight for this country but I won't go as an internee from behind these barbed-wire fences leaving my family in imprisonment. I will go only on the condition that I go as an American, that I can report to my hometown draft board with my family in our home and then I will serve. And for that courageous and principled stand, they were tried and found guilty of draft evasion and put into federal penitentiaries. And that is the drama of this musical "Allegiance."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ALLEGIANCE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Where are they taking you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) What's going to happen?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Oh, God. I'm so scared.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) All right. Hannah got a newspaper to run our story. Even if they execute us for treason...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) ...even if they do, the outside world will know about it. Our sacrifice won't be for nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) You're all taken away from me...

TAKEI: Music is an amazing medium that goes straight to the heart and from there to the mind. And I find this form of theater probably the most powerful and moving way to tell this story.

SIMON: We have a clip of you singing.

TAKEI: Oh, well, this is not quite that. It's one of the lighter moments.

SIMON: Well, you play two roles here. You also play Oji-san, the grandfather of the family we follow in the camp. Let's run this. You're singing a little song to try and cheer up your granddaughter Kei.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ALLEGIANCE")

TAKEI: (as Oji-san) (Singing) Kei, look at page, they are very bad, Oji look a paper, see how Keiko very sad. (Japanese spoken), you've taken all this way...

SIMON: There's a little bit of stage business as I understand it because the piece of paper that you're folding into a, I guess, an origami flower for your granddaughter, well, what is that scrap of paper?

TAKEI: Yes. That plays a very important part in the drama and in history as well. It was the sheet of paper that was to ascertain the loyalty of the people that the government had imprisoned on the suspicion - merely the suspicion, not the guilt - of being potential spies, fifth columnists, traitors. Every one over the age of 17 had to respond to it, whether you were male or female, citizen or non-citizen. The two key questions - question 27 - asked will you bear arms to defend the United States of America? This being asked of an 87-year-old immigrant lady as well as a 17-year-old young man. Even more insidious was the next question - question 28. It asked - and I'm paraphrasing - but essentially it said: Will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the emperor of Japan? The government assumed that if you're born with this face, even if you're an American, never been to Japan, that we are born with an organic inborn loyalty to the emperor. It was offensive. And the amazing thing is that so many young people answered yes to those two offensive questions and went and served.

SIMON: George, I grew up with a lot of kids, Japanese-American kids, whose families had been in the camps, and then they came to Chicago because when they got out of the camps, they just didn't feel safe staying in the West Coast. May I ask why did your family, as I understand it, go back to Los Angeles?

TAKEI: We were from Los Angeles. We came back to Los Angeles because my parents didn't want to go to another unknown place that might be even more hostile in a different way. But indeed it was a different Los Angeles we came home to. Housing was next to impossible. Our first home was on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. And to us kids - I was the oldest, I was eight years old when we came back - it was terrifying. All those scary, smelly, ugly people leaning on the wall, sort of staggering around, falling right down in front of us on the sidewalk, The stench of urine on the street, in the hallways, everywhere. It was horrific. In fact, my baby sister said, mama, let's go back home, because we had adjusted to the routine of incarceration. And it was home.

SIMON: How does appearing in "Allegiance" kind of - where does it fit into your career?

TAKEI: I see "Allegiance" as my legacy project. The story is very important to me. And it's been my mission in life to raise Americans' awareness of that shameful chapter of American history. I think we learn more from those times in our history where we stumble as a democracy than we learn from the glorious chapters. We have a history of slavery or inequality to women. And now, the civil rights movement of the 21st century is the struggle for equality for the gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. And I think it's important for Americans to know about the times that we failed, and "Allegiance" tells that story.

SIMON: George Takei. He stars in the new musical "Allegiance." And the previews will begin on September 7th at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. He joined us from member station KPBS there. George, thanks so much. Been a delight.

TAKEI: I've enjoyed chatting with you.

SIMON: You can hear more from George Takei, including when he decided to become an actor and where he got that voice - ooh, my - on npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.