George Takei, who would grow up to play Lt. Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, was five years old in 1942 when his family and some 120,000 other Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were forcibly relocated to internment camps in California and more distant places. His memory of those years of humiliation, deprivation and determination has been filtered through the prism of a creative trio of musical-theater novices. The result is Allegiance, a somewhat ungainly musical that has moments of beauty and passion, as well as a complexity of themes that are not the usual stuff of Broadway shows.
Not coincidentally, Allegiance offers an opportunity to see Sulu in the flesh, along with a fine cast led by Lea Salonga more than two decades after she won the Tony Award in the title role of Miss Saigon. Both actors have huge fan bases across social media (Salonga is a superstar in her native Philippines as well as a beloved presence on Broadway). The story begins in 2001 with the delivery to Sam Kimura (Takei) of a mysterious envelope from his sister, recently deceased after many decades’ estrangement. Gravel-voiced and still moved by anger, he wants nothing to do with whatever this young woman has brought him, but soon we flash back to the family farm in Salinas, CA in 1941, in the months leading up to the Japanese attack. The Kimuras are proud American citizens who work hard and get by until war is declared and the family is herded into railroad cars and taken to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.
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There they struggle to make the best of squalid circumstances, making do with lousy food and arid conditions while the white officers and staff treat them with unveiled contempt. Grandfather (Takei) is determined to grow a garden and preaches “gaman,” which essentially means “endure with dignity.” That becomes an increasing challenge for son Sammy (the fine Telly Leung), who agitates for the chance to prove his patriotism (and earn the love of his distant father, played by Christopher Nomura) by enlisting. His sister Kei (Salonga) can’t get medicine for her suffering grandfather until a very blonde nurse (Katie Rose Clarke) falls in love with Sammy.
Kei comes under the spell of Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), who offends Sammy by pressing for justice and demanding that the families be recognized as Americans before serving in the armed forces. When the Japanese-Americans finally are allowed to join up or be drafted, Sammy ships out to Italy while Frankie is arrested as a draft dodger. That is a passel of stories and plot threads to weave through a show, and Allegiance takes it all on with more energy than finesse. No sooner has grandfather’s suffering been established than we are off to a swirling, high-spirited dance in the camp’s recreation center.
The score by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione (book) and Kuo (music) struck me on first hearing as more imitation than original. Case in point, Kei’s late Act I “Higher,” which gives Salonga a showcase for her still-rich pipes but is so generic it lacks any emotional punch. Donyale Werle’s stage designs fluctuate between cheap looking and minimalistically elegant, while Alejo Vietti’s costumes are more stylistically integrated — watch how easily the traditional-looking clothes for the women accommodate the dancing. Less successful are the staging by Stafford Arima and the dancing by Andrew Palermo, which have the virtue of avoiding Asian cliché but also fail, like the songs, to give the show wings.
And yet Allegiance is another significant addition to a Broadway season that offers an alternative take on the American experience, from Hamilton to On Your Feet! and the upcoming revival of A View From The Bridge. Validation is hardly the worst crime a show can commit, and I think that’s one reason the audience was cheering at the very moving end of the show. It’s a triumph of a rare sort, shedding light in a dark corner of our history with uncommon generosity of spirit.
A FEW BLOCKS WEST OF TIMES SQUARE there’s a thrilling revival of Martin Duberman’s In White America. This 1963 Obie-winning play was a landmark work in the dramatic form of testimonial theater, and it couldn’t be timelier nor better presented in Charles Maryan’s powerful production for the New Federal Theatre in association with the Castillo Theatre.
In White America deploys six actors and a musician to tell the story of African-Americans from the Middle Passage to the present, through the words of those who lived the history. It can be seen as a precursor to Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary and many a contemporary play. It’s not agitprop, building through the words — of slaves, politicians, Klansmen, journalists, witnesses and victims — to something of overwhelming emotional power. I’ve rarely been so moved as these testimonies took me from the Revolution and the Civil War through the violent years of desegregation and the Civil Rights movement.
You will hear familiar ballads (“Follow The Drinking Gourd,” “Oh, Freedom!”) and rallying calls (“Which Side Are You On?”) played on guitar or banjo by Bill Toles, and the words of Thomas Jefferson (spoken by Ezra Barnes), Sojourner Truth (JoAnna Rhinehart) and a freed slave, W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson (performed variously by Art McFarland and Shane Taylor) as you’ve never experienced them before, and with accumulating power. Nothing fancy in the set or staging, which merely heightens the impact. While the ensemble (which also includes Nalina Mann and Bill Tatum) is terrific, I want to single out Rhinehart, whose portrayal of a 15-year-old girl recalling her attempt to enter Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas on the first day of school made me tremble:
“I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob — someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face but when I looked at her again, she spat on me. They came closer, shouting, ‘No nigger bitch is going to get in our school. Get out of here!’ Then I looked down the block and saw a bench at the bus stop. I thought, ‘If I can only get there I will be safe.’ I don’t know why the bench seemed a safe place to me, but I started walking toward it. I tried to close my mind to what they were shouting, and kept saying to myself, ‘If I can only make it to the bench I will be safe.’ When I finally got there, I don’t think I could have gone another step. I sat down and the mob crowded up and began shouting all over again. Someone hollered, ‘Drag her over to the tree! Let’s take care of the nigger.’ “
Duberman and Maryan have updated the ending of In White America, bringing right up to the Black Lives Matter present. There are only a few more chances to see this beautifully produced, quietly shattering show. Don’t miss it. (See castillo.org or newfederaltheatre.com.)
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