ishi kara ishi

on the closing of allegiance

By the time you read this, the Broadway production of “Allegiance” will have already closed. The musical had a short run on Broadway—it started previews on October 6, 2015, and only opened officially on November 8. I saw the show in December, after hearing about it for the years it was in the making. I wish that I could write a glowing review in which I extol the show’s virtues, wax rhapsodic about its songs and staging, its characters and storytelling. I can’t do that; the fact is that the production was mediocre. But the story it tells—that is a story that deserves so much more attention than the short months it got.

The U.S. government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is a surprisingly often overlooked part of our country’s history. Some of the reviews of “Allegiance” call on the relative rareness of the internment story being told: The Chicago Tribune’s particularly insightful review, for example, describes the period as an “oft-forgotten example of overt racism in American history; a stain on the nation’s conduct during World War II; and a reminder of the perils of paranoia and the targeting of the innocent.”

This is accurate. Between 1942 and 1945, the U.S. government incarcerated about 120,000 Japanese-Americans: not just Japanese immigrants, but their American-born children and grandchildren as well. The people were relocated to desolate camps mostly in the dusty Western states to remove them from the West Coast; this was done largely to ease the government’s fear that these people who looked like the enemy were secretly aiding Japan’s war effort. This sounds unconstitutional—there was certainly no due process of the law involved—but in 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the forced evacuation of the coast, and the nation did not issue reparations for another 44 years. And somehow this is just a one-day lesson in most American high school history classes.

My personal experience with the history behind “Allegiance” heightened my surprise at the story’s relative obscurity. My father is a legal historian whose focus is the Japanese-American internment, so I’ve been hearing about it since I was very young. Its themes and stories were part of my childhood, as picture books and chapter books and museum visits and a thousand dinner-table conversations. It is not my history—although I believe my father’s interest in it comes, at some level, from my German-Jewish family’s own history with Nazi camps during the Second World War.

I am not Japanese-American, and I can’t pretend to know the emotional legacy of being descended from an internee. Nor do I know what it must have been like for Japanese-American audience members at “Allegiance” to see their family stories on stage. But my familiarity with the show’s historical basis was at the front of my mind as I watched.

It happens that the strongest elements of the show are the ones rooted in history. The show follows Sammy Kimura, played both as an old man by George Takei and (primarily) as a young man in the 1940s by Telly Leung. Other major characters are Sammy’s sister Keiko (played by Lea Salonga), father Tatsu, and grandfather Ojii-chan (also George Takei). There are also both of the siblings’ love interests, respectively a white nurse named Hannah and a draft resister named Frankie Suzuki.

The most successful note the show strikes is in its depiction of the diversity of the internees’ reactions to internment. There is a great deal of tension between Sammy, who wants nothing more than to enlist in the army and prove himself to be a patriotic American, and Frankie, who leads a group of internees in resisting the draft (which applied to internees despite their unjust imprisonment). While each sees the other as a traitor, the show takes neither one’s side, instead portraying both reactions with respect.

The moment at which Frankie and Sammy’s differences become irreconcilable is when the internees are given a loyalty questionnaire, meant to suss out whether they pose a genuine threat to the United States. The questionnaire was in many ways unfair and biased, but many people were most offended by questions 27 and 28, and it is these questions to which the characters in the show react. Question 27 asks the questionnaire taker whether they are willing to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, and Question 28 asks if they are willing to swear allegiance to the U.S. and forswear allegiance to the Japanese emperor (implying, by the word “forswear,” that the internees, even those who were born in and had never left America, had some kind of allegiance to Japan).

Sammy becomes a “Yes-Yes” man, and his father, Tatsuo, a “No-No” out of righteous hurt and anger, and what he sees as honor and self-respect; Sammy sees it as misplaced pride. Frankie, refusing to answer at all, leads a mockery of the corner they’ve been backed into. The song in which Frankie expresses his opinions about their situation, the bitingly sarcastic “Paradise,” is one of the strongest in the show. Ultimately, after Sammy enlists in a segregated unit, Frankie leads a resistance to the draft in protest of the incarceration.

The show does a beautiful job, to my non-Japanese American eye, showing the immigrant and first-generation blended culture and how its bearers react in the face of enormous adversity. We see baseball and judo; intergenerational and intragenerational conflict over what loyalty to oneself and one’s country really means; and a few songs like “Gaman” (“endurance with dignity”) and “Ishi Kara Ishi” (“[mountain can be moved,] stone by stone”), in which George Takei as Ojii-chan tries to encourage his family and friends to stay strong and move forward.

These songs are relatively strong in a production that is weak lyrically and uninteresting musically. They also highlight the show’s driving stars, George Takei (whose family history in fact inspired the show) and Lea Salonga. On the night I saw the show, the roles normally played by both Ms. Salonga and Telly Leung were performed by understudies, and Ms. Salonga’s understudy Elena Wang carried the role and its showcase songs phenomenally.

The show has its flaws—the love stories, Frankie and Kei’s but particularly Hannah and Sammy’s, feel heavy-handed and lazy as ways of dealing with big questions of complex morality. There are a few dramatic twists that feel similarly overwrought, and characters (such as Mike Masaoka, a historical figure who is villainized by the show but who, according to my dad, was a very complicated man) whose shades of grey are bled out into black and white. The book, again, is not strong. And even within the historical framework itself, there are problems. My dad cited numerous cases where the show (again, heavy-handedly) ratcheted up the intensity and severity of the camps. They were lonely, unjust, difficult, and desolate places, where guard towers around the perimeter faced not out but in—but according to my dad, most of them were not the same rough police-state-like places depicted by the show.

So, heavy-handed, dramatically and historically, to prove its point? Yes. But that point is worth proving. “Allegiance” did an enormous service to the world by bringing the story of the Japanese American Internment to the stage, and it is gone too soon. Here’s to hoping that the brief run has at least brought the internment into people’s awarenesses—and that it won’t, again, return to the half-remembered vagueness of a single day of high school history.