Allegiance: George Takei Shares His WWII Internment Tale

George Takei reflects on his experience with the musical Allegiance, which returns to Fathom Events along with a behind-the-scenes feature.

Allegiance is becoming an annual event. For the past two years on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, Fathom Events has presented to theaters around the country the filmed version of the Broadway musical which tells the story of one family’s extraordinary journey during a shameful chapter of American World War II history when it imprisoned its own innocent citizens. George Takei, known by most of his fans as Lieutenant Sulu of Star Trek, joined us to talk about his role in the play, his personal experience as a child in the Japanese-American internment camps, and the exciting news that this year’s theater event includes a behind-the-scenes making-of documentary called Allegiance to Broadway.

Allegiance had a respectable run of just under 150 performances on Broadway from October of 2015 until February of 2016, but Takei didn’t want the important story to end there. “We opened in New York on Broadway in 2015, which was also the year when Hamilton opened, and that was our bad luck because Hamilton sucked up all the oxygen on Broadway,” Takei explains. “We had full houses for the run of Allegiance, but we had to sell our tickets at a discount… our box office was not up to what we needed to become a long-run. But then after the Broadway run, we wanted the story not to end there, particularly because it’s such an important story for all Americans to know about, so we filmed it.”

According to Takei, many Americans are either unaware or under-informed about the incarceration of blameless Japanese-Americans from 1942 until 1946. “There are so many people… when I tell them that I grew up in U.S. internment camps as a child, they are shocked,” says Takei. “They’re just aghast that something like what I described to them actually existed in the United States. So Allegiance is making an important contribution to educating and enlightening Americans about our own American history, and I say this is an important story for all Americans because it was the United States Constitution that was egregiously violated. There was no due process! We were innocent people who had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor, and one morning soldiers come up to our home bearing bayonetted rifles and order us out… So that’s why this story of the internment of Japanese-Americans is so important for all Americans to know about.”

Unlike Takei’s iconic role as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, his character in Allegiance has the Japanese accent of a recent immigrant to the U.S., the grandfather of the main character in the play. “I play two characters in Allegiance,” Takei says. “One is Sam Kimura, and the other character is Sammy’s grandfather. [Teddy Leung] plays the character of Sammy Kimura in the bulk of the play, and he turns into an old man, Old Sam Kimura, and I become Sam Kimura as the old veteran of the second World War. But through the bulk of the play, I’m playing Sam’s grandfather, an immigrant from Japan.”

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Sammy’s story of life in an internment camp is not unlike Takei’s own experience as a child from age five to nine. “Our camp was in the swamps of Arkansas. There were ten camps altogether, all in the most hellish and most isolated places in the country,” Takei explains. “Allegiance takes place at the camp in Wyoming, and we went there just to get the sense and feel of it. We drove for about two hours through nothing. It was just barren high plains. And I thought to myself if I were being driven there with armed guards all around me, how would I have felt? The sense of desolation and really being isolated from any other humanity was really depressing.”

Part of the mission of Allegiance, besides shining a light on the historical significance of the story, was to make the tale relatable to audiences through humor and a sense of community that arose out of adverse circumstances. “The primary thing that I was going for was to humanize that story,” says Takei. “There are a few paragraphs in history books, and there are some mentions in Hell to Eternity, a Jeffrey Hunter movie in which I had a role, and Go For Broke is another movie that touched on the internments. But these are just mentions of that chapter of American history, and we wanted with this musical to humanize it. We wanted to get humor and some lightness into it because all that — the dances and the baseball games — were part and parcel of the internment experience.”

Takei recalls that his father, as a block manager in the camp where his family resided, organized baseball games for the community, and dances were a regular event. “We really did have dances because teenagers needed to have a place where they could socialize, and so these dances were allowed by the camp command once every couple of months,” Takei says. “So on those designated evenings after dinner, the tables and benches were all cleared off and a record player was brought in and teenagers had their dances. So all that is not there in Allegiance as traditional Broadway musical numbers. They were organic to the experience of being incarcerated like that.”

This year, instead of simply bringing Allegiance to moviegoers on Pearl Harbor Day, a new behind-the-scenes documentary will premiere before showing the musical, each with their own one-day showing. “We’ve been running on December 7 the last two years, but this year, we developed the documentary, the making of Allegiance, and so we decided to straddle December 7,” explains Takei. “The documentary of the making of Allegiance is going to be screened on December 4, and then a week after that on December 11, we’re screening the musical itself. So you’re getting a double whammy this year.”

Takei admits that, although he’s known for Star Trek and Allegiance is technically his broadway debut, he’s always felt a connection to the stage. “The theater has always been my primary love. I was a theater student at UCLA, and the reason I went to New York with Fly Blackbird back in 1960 was because that’s where my heart really resides. Actually, [my husband and I are] bicoastal; we have an apartment in New York, and our primary home is here in Los Angeles because film and television pays a little bit better than Broadway,” Takei says with a laugh.

Chances are Allegiance to Broadway and Allegiance are showing in a theater near you, so check your local listings or fathomevents.com. Meanwhile, if you’d like to hear the full interview with George Takei, which includes more stories of his own personal experience during the war and on Broadway, listen to The Den of Geek Podcast on the app of your choice or simply listen below (at 22:30).