By FRANK ABE, Special to the Rafu Shimpo
SPOILER ALERT: This theater review reveals an absurd central plot point.
Don’t dismiss the problem with the new musical “Allegiance” as just one of historical inaccuracies — although it is riddled with them. The real issue is the fabrication of events that were impossible within the reality of America’s concentration camps.
As creator of the 2000 PBS film “Conscience and the Constitution” — which first framed the conflict between the organized resistance led by Frank Emi, and its suppression by the government and JACL, led by Mike Masaoka — I’ve been asked how the musical performs as history.
And after seeing it in New York, it’s apparent the makers of “Allegiance” found the fact of civilian administration of the camps too mundane — which it was — to provide the dramatic obstacle to their themes of endurance and hope. To compensate, they conflate Heart Mountain with the worst of the segregation center at Tule Lake and invent military rule at Heart Mountain.
“Allegiance” is billed as a fiction “inspired by the true-life experience” of star George Takei, who was imprisoned as a child at Rohwer and Tule Lake. But be aware his personal experience validates only those events common to every camp story — fictional family at home, Pearl Harbor, selling the farm cheap, yes-yes/no-no, and war’s end. Once that family, here called the Kimuras, is evicted from home and reaches the WRA camp in Wyoming, the makers of “Allegiance” selectively alter the reality governing Heart Mountain to more closely suggest that of a German POW camp — complete with camp-wide loudspeakers ordering a nighttime curfew, military police shoving Nisei to the ground, evacuees sorted by gender upon arrival and told to strip to their underwear, and Issei clapped into handcuffs for answering no-no on the loyalty oath.
Camp was degrading and dehumanizing, but this goes beyond fiction to fantasy. The processing of new arrivals is staged to evoke the ghoulish selection process at Nazi gas chambers. Camp-wide loudspeakers were a feature of “M*A*S*H,” not Heart Mountain. Incarcerees only had to roll up their sleeves to receive inoculations after arrival. The curfew existed on the West Coast before eviction, not after removal to camp; where would you go?
The MPs at Heart Mountain were an ominous presence, but their patrol of the exterior gate and nine guard towers ended several hundred feet outside the barbed-wire fence that encircled the barracks. Handcuffs were not needed on segregants headed for Tule Lake, because in the high desert of Wyoming, where would you run?
Act I ends with the hyper-patriotic Sam Kimura enlisting in the Army and raising his hand in salute, while his sister Kei’s sweetheart, Frankie Suzuki, raises his fist in defiance. Frankie is revealed in Act II as a stand-in for the real-life Frank Emi of San Gabriel, one of the leaders of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. But where “Conscience” presents the resistance for what it was — a studied act of civil disobedience — “Allegiance” incongruously recasts the resisters as the oppressed, fists-raised revolutionaries from “Les Misérables” (“Resist”).
Reporters ask Sam, now a war hero and sweet on Hannah, a white nurse, how he feels about “the draft riots at Heart Mountain” where resisters “are burning their draft cards.” Frankie exclaims to Kei, “They could hang me for treason!” (“This Is Not Over”).
Frankie is hunted by armed guards inside the perimeter and refuses to hide. He is thrown into a stockade at Heart Mountain, where he is kicked and beaten bloody by MPs. Kei rallies the women to appeal for help by writing letters they smuggle out of camp under their skirts (“Resist” reprise).
From his prison cell, Frankie reports that “With the press getting a hold of our story, there’s word of letting us out early, maybe even a pardon.” (“Nothing in Our Way”).
It’s laughable nonsense, as if the camps were run not by Dillon Myer and the WRA but by Hermann Göring and his Luftwaffe. No firearms were used inside the perimeter. The resistance was open and above-board, its meetings open to the public. No one had to run or hide; leaders of the Fair Play Committee were quietly taken into custody at their family barracks by federal marshals who came at dawn. The resisters knew they risked five years in prison for bucking the draft, but violating the Selective Service Act was never a capital crime, never treason. No resistance leader at Heart Mountain was beaten bloody or hunted by guards like an inmate escaping “Stalag 17.”
Draft cards were burned at Berkeley in the 1960s, for the benefit of TV cameras, not in 1940s Heart Mountain. The only disturbances were at Manzanar, Poston, and Tule Lake. Heart Mountain had no stockade; that was Tule Lake. The one sympathetic editorial in The Wyoming Eagle gave a federal judge no pause before he convicted the 63 resisters. President Truman did pardon the resisters, but only after the war, and only along with all draft resisters of World War II. Eyewitness Yosh Kuromiya calls all of it an insult to the memory of the FPC.
What’s truly preposterous: With his bloodied head wrapped in bandages, Frankie is dragged by an MP to the infirmary. Hannah the white nurse moves to treat him, but the MP punches Frankie around (!), pulls out his sidearm (!), and (SPOILER ALERT) in the scuffle shoots and kills Hannah by mistake.
Audiences gasp. It’s a show-stopper, but for the wrong reasons. This is no longer historical fiction, like “a story you’ve never heard.” It’s “a story that could never have possibly happened.” The manslaughter of a white nurse at Heart Mountain, and the court-martial of a white MP, would have rocked the course of history. The World War II of “Allegiance” exists in an alternate universe, science fiction as told by Phillip K. Dick.
The show’s makers freely acknowledge that “Allegiance” has as much to do with the camps as “Miss Saigon” did with the war in Vietnam. The historical events exist only as a backdrop for themes of love and hope. But audiences knew something about the Vietnam War. Audiences with no background must accept this action at face value, unaware that much of it was impossible in the reality of the time.
While the show is widely regarded as “George Takei’s Allegiance,” he is not a producer or writer with responsibility for the project. He is an impish presence as grandfather Kimura; he is a commanding presence as the grown-up Sam Kimura; and he growls out his one number (“Ishi Kara Ishi”) while cleverly folding his loyalty questionnaire into the paper flower blossom seen in the show’s logo.
Responsibility for blurred focus and historical fabrications lie with the creative team behind the book, or script. The team was lucky to have secured George’s services to front the show. Mr. Takei graciously provided a voice for our film, he’s done extraordinary work in the community, and people are made to feel that they share in his legacy project.
Portrayal of Masaoka
Unexpectedly, the one reality this show gets right is its portrayal of Mike Masaoka and the wartime Japanese American Citizens League.
Some background: In its tryout at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 2012, audiences reported their dismay at seeing Masaoka burlesqued as “sleazy” and a “scheming villain” who plotted for Nisei boys to die in suicide battalions as a means of proving Japanese American loyalty. This first-draft “Masaoka” joined in on an all-singing, all-dancing production number (“Better Americans in a Greater America”) that parodied his accommodationist stand with such lyrics as “It’s not too late / Come celebrate / America and assimilate!”
The show climaxed with the Nisei vet Sammy, played by Mr. Takei, in full dress uniform screaming at the spirit memory of Masaoka, “You had me lead them to their deaths, you son of a bitch!”
This caricature was criticized by JACL and denounced by veterans’ groups for a) presenting Mike as a cartoon figure, b) using his real name while other historical figures like the Heart Mountain resisters he opposed were fictionalized, and c) appearing to brand every member of the 442 as “as fools and dupes,” as Variety called it. The Japanese American Veterans Association warned that without fundamental change, the play was a Titanic “doomed to hit an iceberg of facts and history.”
At the National JACL convention this summer in Las Vegas, former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta — Mr. Masaoka’s brother-in-law — said that while he and Mr. Takei share much in common, on this portrayal George was “dead wrong.” And on Oct. 7 National JACL issued a new statement that weakly reflected institutional denial and a continued inability to renounce the legacy of Mike Masaoka.
The final Broadway iteration of “Allegiance” addresses the Masaoka problem by playing him straight, with no singing or dancing, drawing from the record of Masaoka’s words and deeds: the initial suggestion of a suicide battalion, the advocacy for a segregated unit that could win white acceptance, the weeding out of the bad apples through segregation at Tule Lake.
L.A. actor Greg Watanabe captures Masaoka’s earnest surrender of civil rights with a seriousness of purpose and flashes of stubborn defiance. Watanabe did his homework, reading Masaoka’s memoir and studying his interview and video on our two-disc DVD. It shows in Watanabe’s performance; a non-singer, his portrayal has gravity.
By hearing Masaoka’s actual words, more or less, we begin to see the false distinctions between loyal and disloyal that the wartime government forced upon Japanese America, with help from JACL, and which we then internalized among ourselves. But unlike the brilliant interplay of American revolutionary history and ideas presented a few blocks away in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s astonishingly detailed “Hamilton,” “Allegiance” cops out in favor of safer melodrama.
What finally drives the Nisei soldier Sammy to renounce his sister, his newborn niece, and the resister Frankie is (SPOILER ALERT) the phony, impossible shooting of his white girlfriend in camp: “You were supposed to protect her!” The once-indivisible family is broken not by matters of principle and deep conviction, but over a personal beef arising from an absurd plot contrivance.
By using Mike’s real name, “Allegiance” establishes the terms by which it invites itself to be measured. So why use his name, despite community complaints and formal objections? One reason may be that in a city with the living memory of the Twin Towers attack of 9/11 and threats to round up and remove all persons of Iranian descent, making a Japanese American the villain of the piece avoids grim realities and helps secure the feel-good nature of the evening.
Make no mistake, the real Mike Masaoka bears plenty of responsibility for waiving Japanese American rights at the height of war and racial hysteria, and for acting as a confidential informant for the FBI. But setting him up as the villain has the emotional effect, intended or not, of letting the government off the hook. It’s as if to say, “Look at Mike, he was the culprit,” not the general who lied about military necessity, the major who was the architect of mass eviction and incarceration, the president who signed the order, or the machinery of government that carried out the order.
The story elements of “Allegiance” that lie outside Mr. Takei’s personal experience play like a Wikipedia version of Japanese American history that rifles through the canon – the invention of the sympathetic white girlfriend and nurse from John Korty’s TV version of “Farewell to Manzanar,” the baseball-in-camp setting of Ken Mochizuki’s “Baseball Saved Us,” the resisters from our film.
An inventive score might have redeemed this mashup, but the songs of “Allegiance” are themselves a pastiche of relentless optimism that admits to no darkness. The Nisei in this camp make their “Wishes on the Wind” and aspire to go “Higher,” because their native “Gaman” makes them “Stronger Than Before.” The trite lyrics and forgettable melodies derive from the show tunes of Sondheim or Kander and Ebb, but without their wit, edge, or skill at character development.
Generic in tone, the songs could be lifted from any similar show, rather than springing from a specific Japanese American impulse – such as the anger and suppressed rage that we know the Nisei carried with them from camp, and which some finally expressed during redress. The only Nisei anger in this show, in fact, is reserved for last, for the family breakup over (SPOILER ALERT) the killing of the white girlfriend.
Japanese Americans who protest “it’s only a musical” overlook the fact that, should “Allegiance” stand, it risks supplanting the truth of the resistance and the Japanese American experience in the popular mind. It’s not a question of insisting that art be slavishly accurate; dramatists must have leeway to condense and rearrange to arrive at an emotional truth. “Allegiance” is bad art that sacrifices truth for theatricality. It arises less from an authentic sensibility, and more as the product of market research, calibrated for fame, box office, and Tony nods.
The desire to have the camp story told is so strong, countless people are willing to overlook fabrications of history and a ludicrous portrayal of the Heart Mountain resisters. I am not. The impact and message of “Allegiance” is at heart a plea for white acceptance, a posture so familiar to Japanese Americans, so ingrained in our DNA after 70 years of allegiance-pledging, we often fail to recognize it.
Frank Abe is producer/director of the documentary “Conscience and the Constitution,” about the organized resistance at the Heart Mountain concentration camp during World War II. The views expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.
Frank Abe’s article is accurate.
I was a prisoner at Heart Mountain and old enough to know facts from fiction. When I saw the play in San Diego, it was highly inaccurate and remains so today on Broadway. The major mistake that George Takei and the producers of Allegiance made was not to consult with those of us who are still alive and remember what really happened.
If they wanted drama and an accurate portrayal of facts, I would have given them all the ammunition they needed. I would have told them that my father went blind at Heart Mountain due to lack of adequate medical care in their “hospital”. I would have told them that my grandfather suffered starvation and died looking like an emaciated holocaust victim due to mistreatment by the limited medical staff at camp.
Many of us would have told the producers of the horrible food which led to our skilled prisoners who created farms to provide adequate food on our mess hall tables. Or that the governor of Wyoming demanded all escapees be “hung from the closest pine tree”.
And we could have described the thousands of Christmas presents we received in camp due to caring people throughout the country.
I use these examples in my nation-wide lectures and I have created strong interest and attendance at performances. Last week, I gave a presentation in a town in New Mexico where the audience was nearly 2000 strong – much larger than a single performance of Allegiance. And today, I am booked through most of 2016 all over the country.
The New York performance could have had a stronger, more accurate story with lots of audience appeal by first consulting with experts who survived the prison camps and could have provided a show with accuracy and appeal. And they could have taken the show to the people who cannot afford to make a trip to New York.
Sam Mihara, visiting lecturer, UC Berkeley and UCLA, and board member of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation