In remembrance of FDR’s Executive Order 9066 authorizing Japanese American internment on February 19, 1942, Rave Cinemas screened the movie version of the Broadway musical “Allegiance,” which tackles like in the camps.
The musical was created by “Star Trek” actor George Takei, inspired by his own experience growing up in an internment camp. It follows the Kimuras, a three-generation family of Japanese immigrants, as their wishes for the future are stamped out once they are uprooted from their homes and transported to Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming. George Takei plays an elderly Sammy Kimura, encouraged by the ghost of his sister, Keiko to go “back to a time that no one speak of” and reflect on the painful and lasting family divide that internment caused.
When the Loyalty Questionnaire is distributed, with infamous questions 27 and 28 asking Japanese to sign their willingness to fight in the US military and forswear all allegiance to the emperor of Japan, each character takes a different strategy for resistance.
Sammy Kimura, following in the footsteps of JACL spokesperson Mike Masaoka, hopes to fight in the American military to prove that the Japanese are loyal citizens. On the other hand, Frankie Suzuki refuses to join the war effort, on the grounds that he is unwilling to fight for a country that treats his family like the enemy. This causes tensions within the family, and Keiko, who loves them both, attempts to bridge the gap.
A repeated refrain is the word gaman, which means to carry on. The families band together to start a baseball league and organize dances to make life in camp bearable. They fold the Loyalty questionnaire into an origami flower. Oji-chan nurtures a vegetable garden in the rocky mountain terrain, creating beauty and strength in a hopeless place.
Hannah, a white military nurse, who trusted that America’s government would act to keep the best interests of citizens in mind, feels torn once she falls in love with Sammy and realizes that the Japanese Americans are not enemy people. She sings: “I follow the rules, but should I?” The question echoes multiple times through the air, forcing the audience to question whether the legal system can be trusted to protect the rights of all citizens.
Because “Allegiance” tells an often overlooked part of American history, some Japanese Americans are concerned that that audiences will assume the musical’s interpretation of historical events is the ultimate truth, without knowing enough about the nuances of the time.
Some Japanese American organizations expressed concern over the portrayal of the JACL leadership and the 442nd combat team as a “suicide mission” without acknowledging the soldiers’ honorable contributions and progress it made. Others are also concerned that “Allegiance” passes unfair judgment on those who did not resist internment, because with the safety of loved ones at risk, balancing protection and justice was an incredibly difficult predicament.
On the other hand, actor Greg Watanabe, whose own family was interned at Heart Mountain, defended his portrayal of Mike Masaoka, saying: “It’s possible to be historically factual, and still express an opinion.”
Even with mixed reactions, “Allegiance” is groundbreaking for Japanese and Asian Americans because it paves the way for more dialogue to enter mainstream media. Not only is it the first major piece of media centered around internment, “Allegiance” is the first Broadway musical created by Asian Americans, directed by Asian Americans, with a predominantly Asian American cast.
The ending sequence reveals that almost 120,000 people watched “Allegiance” during its run on Broadway — the same number of Japanese that were interned. “Allegiance” opens up the conversation about a rarely discussed civil injustice, educating audiences to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.