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Citizenship is precarious during wartime

‘Allegiance’ shows that Japanese internment is not a precedent worth following

February 15, 2016 2:00AM ET

Many Americans know George Takei for his acclaimed performance as Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek,” and for his social-media-driven activism for LGBT and Asian-American rights. But fewer are aware that authorities took him into custody while his friends were starting kindergarten.

In 1941, when Takei was five years old, American soldiers arrived at his house in Los Angeles, ordered him and his family to leave their home, and transferred them to one of the country’s many Japanese internment camps, where they, along with 150,000 other civilians of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, remained for the next four years. I learned this when I went to see the Broadway show “Allegiance,” which follows the story of a family, the Kimuras, whose plight is inspired by Takei’s childhood.

Today, it’s not uncommon to hear presidential front-runners propose profiling and excluding people based on their race and religion and cite World War II’s Japanese internment policy as a precedent. “Allegiance” delves into some of the ugly history of their terrifying rhetoric and exposes its human cost. It also reveals the precarious state of American citizenship during wartime, when nationalism trumped the rights afforded to U.S. citizens under the Constitution. The play cautions us as to what can go wrong if Trump-style tirades continue, or worse, end up shaping domestic policy.

“Allegiance” does not follow your typical Broadway plotline, with an Everyman who sets out on a journey, encounters some obstacle along the way, and overcomes it through hard work and perseverance. This is the familiar ‘American Dream’ narrative, which maintains that anyone can achieve success if they work hard enough. Rather, “Allegiance” addresses how we make meaning out of the incomprehensible, experience of war, both while it is lived and long after it is concluded.

Critic Charles Isherwood has complained that “Allegiance’s” plotline is more like a singing history lesson than the stuff of Broadway entertainment because of numerous references and information. This has hardly been a problem for the smash hit “Hamilton,” which follows the more traditional American Dream story, albeit of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s most important founding figures. And yet there is something distinctly unsettling about seeing a story about war crimes performed as musical theater. Is Broadway, with its genre conventions and commercial needs, an adequate venue? 

‘Allegiance’ is a timely piece in the context of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric of the current presidential election. It reminds us that national myths tear as much as they knit together the fabric of society.

One audience member at the performance I saw left saying that he couldn’t tell which parts of the show were fiction and which were facts. As a scholar and educator, his statement left me with mixed feelings. That “Allegiance” fails to clearly define the line between fact and fiction isn’t a problem per se; what’s disquieting is that it confronts us with the ethics of remembering and forgetting. The show left me unsure about the line between historical events, the memory of them, and the ethics of dealing with fraught political and individual memories.

Takei uses the stage to transmit his first-hand knowledge of living through wartime incarceration. Gaman, the authors’ note in the playbill explains, is a Japanese word they learned from Takei. It means “endurance with dignity,” a key principle that he and his family held onto when they were incarcerated. It’s rare to see Asian and Asian-American actors in media or popular culture, and while this is not the only reason to watch a show, in this particular case, this story gives a perspective of U.S. history that is all too often untold. How we tell stories is also a question of who will remember them, and how.

“Allegiance” does not have a conventionally Broadway uplifting ending, but it is beautiful, ironic and devastating. It exposes the way uplifting national myths can also be used for violent ends. I sat in the balcony, which was atypically packed with Asian spectators, many of who were Filipino or non-Japanese Asian Americans, like me. We wept watching Tony winner Lea Salonga on stage again, co-starring with Takei, in the role of Kei Kimura. As the curtain fell, I joined with the whole theater to give the actors a full standing ovation.

Salonga played the lead, Kim, in “Miss Saigon”a Broadway show about the Vietnam War. In the story, Kim commits suicide so her child can live with his white father, a U.S. soldier, and his new wife in America. I was 12 years old, and that story conveyed to me that people who look like me did not belong to the idea of America. The Asian female characters were often portrayed as prostitutes who were undeserving of true love or marriage. As opposed to “Miss Saigon,” which makes an allegory of U.S. victory out of Kim’s death and doomed relationship with an American soldier, in “Allegiance,” Salonga plays a strong female Asian character who fights for civil rights — a rare role in the history of Broadway and popular entertainment more generally.

“Allegiance”, like “Miss Saigon,” confronts us with the devastating fragility of America’s promises of liberty, justice and freedom for all. The tenuousness of that covenant becomes all too apparent when fear, violence and hysteria surface, and whip up American nationalism. “Allegiance” is a timely piece in the context of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric of the current presidential election. It reminds us that national myths tear as much as they knit together the fabric of society.

Ana Paulina Lee is an assistant professor of Latin American and Iberian Cultures and affiliated faculty with the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality at Columbia University. She is also an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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