San Diego, CA—Just recently my four-year-old grandson asked me if he would be wearing a space suit when he went into space as an astronaut. He didn’t ask if I thought he could become an astronaut. He assumed he would. For him, the world is his oyster. In a few years he will attend kindergarten where he will put his right hand over his heart and pledge allegiance to his country, the United States of America. He will do this with pride and dignity (Gaman). His mothers will help instill that sense of pride in him.
In 1941 young Sam Kimura (Telly Leung is excellent as the young man Sammy) lived in Salinas, CA. with his family, older sister Kei (Lea Salogna), father, Tatsuo (Paul Nakauchi is commanding) and grandfather, Ojii-San (George Takei, who also plays the older Sammy). The Kimura’s were a Japanese-American family whose farms in Salinas had been producing and selling artichokes for twenty years.
Their family and the surrounding community of Japanese-Americans, some immigrants, some first and second-generation families were thriving, well respected and patriotic citizens. They too pledged their allegiance to this country. They lived breathed and supported it while still maintaining some of their basic traditions like pride and trust in the family.
Teenager Sammy Kimura was a first-born generation Japanese-American. He was a senior in high school and living the ‘American Dream’. When we meet him he announces that he was just elected president (first Japanese-American class president) of his student council. He too had the world in his hands. He had aspirations of going into politics –Washington. (“Going Places”… “I’m a farmer’s son but I’ve just begun and I’m on my way…”)
Some might remember the ‘Day That Will Live In Infamy’…the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, December 7th 1941. “Allegiance—A New American Musical” was born of these events. It is a retro look into another of our blights on our historical calendar some sixty years later.
As in Alfred Uhry’s “Parade” targeting anti-Semitism in Georgia, 1913 and Kander and Ebb’s “Scottsboro Boys” highlighting a ‘social critique’ on bigotry in the Black community in Tennessee, 1931 and now “Allegiance” another critique, if you will on how we dealt with the Japanese –American community in 1941, most people I speak to about these god-awful events are completely ignorant of their history. It’s a story that must be told and students and adults alike must see it.
Now in a world premiere production at the Old Globe Theatre “Allegiance” is striking a new nerve. It is the epic journey of the Kimura’s as seen through their eyes; the eyes of a family whose lives were uprooted and suspended when the American Government, Executive Order 9066, rounded all those of Japanese heritage who lived on the West Coast of the United States and sent them off to ‘relocation camps’ to parts of the country I’ve not heard of. They were believed to be enemy agents. How fragile are our dreams and aspirations?
“Allegiance” is a sprawling new musical with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, and book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione and inspired by Takei whose own memories of his experiences ring true here. It is surprisingly ready for prime time as new musicals go. Lynne Shankel’s orchestrations and her twelve-piece orchestra are simply beautiful and inspiring and the blending of Kuo’s east/west tunes is just right for the piece.
It is deftly directed by Stafford Arima and stars the exceptionally talented Lea Solonga (she still has some powerful chops) as Sammy’s older sister and of Takei who assumes two roles, one of the older Sammy in the retelling of the story and that of the family elder, his grandfather. Ironically, Ojii-San belonged to the ‘Hanafuda Club of Salinas’, which in essence was a card club that the Federal agents deemed subversive. (Takei is wonderfully impish as Ojii San in his earlier scenes.)
It is under these conditions that the family, along with the rest of their community was tagged boarded on to trains and shipped off to ‘Hart Mountain Camp’ in Wyoming. And so the nightmare that began in 1942 lasted 2-2/2 years. It was in these camps that the prisoners lived in overcrowded tarpaper barracks partitioned off by makeshift walls without plumbing or cooking facilities and only the clothes they could fit into one suitcase.
But the story doesn’t end here. Sammy and his family and peers get the screws put to them twice: first by their own government and second by one of their own, Mike Masaoka (Paola Mantalban is distastefully provocative) the leader of Japanese American Citizens League who is more interested in promoting himself than in helping his own people.
As the leader of this league and with direct ties to Washington, Masaoka’s influence on Sammy was enough for him to cause the riff in his family especially between Sammy and his sister, that lasted over sixty years because of a loyalty oath he insisted the internees sign. It split the camp in two with those like Sammy’s father, who was thrown in the camp slammer for not signing and Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee) Kei’s new love interest, who was adamant about refusing to sign compared to Sammy’s over zealous willingness to sign and to wear the army uniform and fight.
The story follows these two tracks with Sammy falling in love with the camp nurse Hannah Campbell (local talent Allie Trimm) a Quaker and war resister and then officially going off to war and experiencing its deceptions and consequences, and the love story and vicissitudes of Frankie and Kei.
Technically, “Allegiance” is beautifully framed. Donyale Werle’s set design is flexible and to the point without over kill with the use of scrims and screens. Howell Brinkley’s lighting design along with Darrel Maloney’s projections is most effective as we are taken into the bombing of Hiroshima where the ground rises and falls in rolling earthquake like convulsions. It is a scene that reached my inner core as it unfolded.
Andrew Palermo’s choreography brought big dance numbers to the fore and the large and talented cast of singers and dancers, a mostly Asian-American cast are definitely up to the task.
Alejo Vietti’s costumes are almost too pretty and tasteful for what we see and know is happening especially in the scenes in the camps that we know were no more than tinder boxes where families had to share one room and there was absolutely no privacy.
This leads me to the one major criticism I have of the overall production and that is Jay Kuo’s pointed and poignant lyrics seem at odds with the book. While much of the down and dirty facts are there they were glazed over or given the velvet gloves treatment.
Only at the very end do we see Sammy (Tekei), who was a bitter old man when we first met up with him, now a little more humble and thoughtful after his story is told and the facts came out. Still in uniform, he served in the all-442nd Regimental Combat Team, (only formed for the American born sons of Japanese immigrants) and decked out with ribbons and medals, he shows some very raw emotions that were dearly missing throughout the show. (Bring tissues)
And while it’s ready technically, the creators of “Allegiance” have to make a commitment one way or the other; hard facts against a musical background or a lively musical with a factual story highlighting a blight on our history without delving too deeply into the cracks and crevices. Either way it’s a new show that needs to be seen warts and all. There is talk already of a Broadway connection so be the first to see right here. You will not be disappointed.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: through Oct.28th
Organization: Old Globe Theatre
Production Type: Musical
Where: Balboa Park, San Diego
Ticket Prices: start at $39.00
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage