By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
“Allegiance,” a new musical about the Japanese American internment, is set to have its world premiere next month at The Old Globe in San Diego.
The show, which is making its way to Broadway, is attracting a lot of attention because of the talent involved, including George Takei (“Star Trek,” “Heroes”), Lea Salonga (“Miss Saigon,” “Les Miserables”) and Telly Leung (“Wicked,” “Glee”). Buzz has been generated by workshop productions and videos posted online.
The play looks at issues of loyalty and disloyalty confronted by Japanese Americans during World War II and the resulting turmoil in the camps. Although there is general agreement about the need for a show like “Allegiance” to educate the public, some in the community have raised objections to the way the JACL and the veterans are portrayed.
The story begins with war hero Sam Kimura (played by Takei) being interviewed about his experiences. His family was forced to leave their farm in Salinas and incarcerated at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.
In camp, young Sammy (Leung) befriends JACL National Secretary Mike Masaoka (Pedro Montalban) and falls in love with a Quaker nurse, Hannah Campbell (Allie Trimm). Sammy supports JACL’s call for Japanese Americans to demonstrate their loyalty, to the chagrin of his Issei father, Tatsuo (Paul Nakauchi).
Sammy is angered when his sister Kei (Salonga) falls in love with Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), who urges internees to protest the violation of their constitutional rights. In response to the divisive loyalty questionnaire, Tatsuo refuses to pledge his allegiance to America and is sent to Tule Lake. Sammy, against the wishes of his sister and girlfriend, volunteers for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Sammy becomes a poster boy for the 442nd and participates in the bloody rescue of the Lost Battalion, while Kei and Frankie lead the draft resisters, with Hannah’s support, and are arrested. The rift in the Kimura family lasts for decades.
Songs include “The Mountain’s Heart,” “Better Americans in a Greater America” (JACL’s motto), “I Haven’t Got a Prayer,” “Second Chances,” “Gaman,” and “My Time Now.”
Masaoka (1915-1991), whose autobiography is entitled “They Call Me Moses Masaoka,” remains a source of controversy in the community to this day. He figures prominently in Frank Abe’s documentary about the draft resisters, “Conscience and the Constitution” (a speech by Masaoka is one of the extras on the DVD), and is condemned in Frank Chin’s book “Born in the USA.” His detractors say he didn’t just cooperate with the government, he collaborated.
A Letter to the Producers
Describing themselves as “Concerned Supporters of ‘Allegiance,’” a group of JACL members in Sacramento outlined their concerns in a letter to Jay Kuo (composer, lyricist, book writer), Lorenzo Thione (book writer, producer), Stafford Arima (director), Wendy Gillespie (investor, producer), and Takei. The letter was signed by Charles Kobayashi, Eileen Otsuji, Lester Ouchida and Marielle Tsukamoto, and copies were sent to several community leaders. It reads, in part:
“A number of us attended one or both showings of the ‘Allegiance’ DVD in Sacramento. We were impressed and moved by most aspects of the play. The casting and score were superb. ‘Allegiance’ has the potential to be the most far-reaching medium to ever tell the story of the sufferings and the noble actions of Japanese Americans resulting from their incarceration during World War II.
“Overcoming adversity and the ultimate triumph of Japanese Americans by their courage and integrity is among the greatest of American stories. Our desire is that ‘Allegiance’ will be a highly acclaimed, financial and artistic success while honoring the perseverance, integrity, and nobility of ALL Japanese Americans.
“A few of us who volunteer to teach the Japanese American story (including annual docent work at the California State Museum) have met to discuss ‘Allegiance.’ We wish to express the following concerns:
“Concern 1: The negative portrayal of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and Mike Masaoka only tells one aspect of his leadership and their contributions. The large majority of Isseis and Niseis believed that any resistance would be futile and not in the best interest of their children.
“Concern 2: The 442nd … is the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. Army. It is acknowledged that their military record in World War II contributed to the betterment of all Americans of Japanese ancestry. The records of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service are often recognized as an integral force in the signing of the redress legislation. The characterizations and dialogue in ‘Allegiance’ are insulting to the sacrifices made by the veterans.
“Concern 3: The vast majority of Isseis and Niseis took a patriotic stand of loyalty to the United States while a minority group of resisters protested the violation of their constitutional rights. Both took honorable stands. The opportunity is there for ‘Allegiance’ to provide a lasting legacy and tribute to honor both these factions. That is not the case in the preview workshop version shown in Sacramento.
“We offer our concerns with hopes that they will contribute to an even better ‘Allegiance.’ The version that we saw resurrects the old wounds by only telling one side of the story.
“We are aware that some changes have been made to ‘Allegiance’ since the Sacramento showings and attempts have been made to learn about the specific changes. However, we have yet to receive any definitive information regarding changes that address the concerns that we are raising.”
The letter includes details about the accomplishments of the JACL and the Nisei soldiers, such as the fact that of the five Masaoka brothers who served in the 442nd, one was killed and one was severely wounded. It also lists Masaoka’s postwar efforts to gain U.S. citizenship for the Issei and redress for interned Japanese Americans.
It also notes, “Masaoka, in his speech to the National JACL in 1982, rebutted to critics that the JACL was the lone organized voice for Japanese Americans in the early pre-evacuation years and throughout World War II. He admits that not all JACL decisions were correct, but that all decisions were honestly and sincerely made with the belief that they were for the good of the great majority of those of Japanese ancestry … He made remarks about critics who were not there in those tragic days.”
Masaoka as Villain?
Kobayashi told The Rafu Shimpo, “The (‘Allegiance’) website … describes the 442nd as an Army unit which was formed at the request of Mike Masaoka … while both he and Sam were at Heart Mountain. It also talks about Mike Masaoka having recruited Sam to be the spokesperson for the loyalists against the resisters and recruited him to join the 442nd.
“Of course, all of this is fiction as Masaoka was never in Heart Mountain and he had nothing to do with the resisters, either for or against, and the 442nd was formed in early 1943 by the War Department and Masaoka had nothing to do with its formation as the 442nd followed the Hawaiian 100th Battalion …
“Sam’s Caucasian, pacifist girlfriend at Heart Mountain aids the resisters … When Sam returns from the war, Mike Masaoka tells Sam that his girlfriend had betrayed the United States. Apparently this leads to Sam forever hating his girlfriend and also his family … Again, Masaoka had nothing to do with telling anyone to despise his girlfriend – the point is to get the audience to hate Masaoka further.
“The website does not describe how the story ends, but originally Sam apologized to his father for having joined the 442d and not having listened to him …The ‘Allegiance’ website’s description is very vague and until it tells the whole story, I cannot believe that Mike Masaoka will be portrayed as anything but a villain.”
Ouchida added, “We had no issue with the story of the resisters and the no-no boys being told as many of them undoubtedly took an honorable stand protesting the violation of their constitutional rights. However, we felt that the play should also portray in an honorable way the noble actions of those Nikkei who were patriotic and loyal to the United States, in particular the thousands who served with such great distinction in World War II.
“We have heard that Nikkei in other communities have also raised similar concerns. Perhaps their concerns as well as our letter have had some influence as there are some indications that changes have been made regarding the characters, names and the script … We are hopeful that ‘Allegiance’ will be an artistic and financial success. Our letter was written in the spirit that ‘Allegiance’ will also be successful in telling the story of ALL Japanese Americans who suffered from the hardships of internment and yet responded in different but noble ways.”
The creative team sent the following response to The Rafu Shimpo:
“‘Allegiance’ is a musical under development, and as such has gone through various transformations, including its current incarnation that will open at The Old Globe in San Diego before its planned Broadway run.
“At its core, ‘Allegiance’ is about the experience of one American family — the Kimuras — who are torn from each other by not only the events of the internment, but the strife within the community between those who supported the JACL and Masaoka’s policies and those who resisted them. Given this backdrop, inevitably there will be criticisms on both sides.
“The writing team is working closely with a Japanese American historical consultant at The Old Globe to ensure that the story ‘Allegiance’ tells is based on true events; at the same time, the writers have dramatized historical events within the framework of this fictional family in order to tell the story in an interesting and provocative way.
“The writers have been careful not to make specific changes based on specific requests but rather on their consistent goal of telling this important story, and all sides of it, in musical form before the widest audience possible so that this dark chapter of American history is not forgotten and never repeated.
“We encourage you to peruse the official website of ‘Allegiance’ with the most up-to-date information regarding the plot and production timeline as well as an up-to-date set of resources on the matter of the Japanese American internment, which include links and information regarding the JACL, Mike Masaoka, as well as those related to the Heart Mountain resisters, the Lim Report and other historical and factual information from which the otherwise fictional storyline of ‘Allegiance’ was inspired.”
On the Web:
Hi J.K., I’m glad you were able to watch the DVD bonus features on the second disc of CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION. I was pleased to be able to include not only Mike Masaoka’s peoration at the 1982 JACL national convention, but excerpts from a radio interview with him I did in Seattle where he gave surprisingly candid answers to the tough questions I posed. The two-disc set can be ordered here: http://www.resisters.com/orders/
I’ve rolled up some observations on the portrayal of the resisters and JACL in the new musical in a post on my blog at http://www.resisters.com/2012/09/11/resisters-at-heart-of-new-musical/ and tracked back to this article.
I found this to be a first class job of reporting! Beginning this story with almost no knowledge of Allegiance other than it was a musical in the tryout stages, I finished feeling I had a rather complete picture of the complex emotional and artistic issues involved in this project.