George Takei’s “Allegiance” is a timely historical musical for today

AllegiancePlay

After a November performance at the Longacre Theatre in New York’s fabled Broadway district, AARP members were invited for a “talkback” with George Takei and other cast members answering questions about their powerful musical, “Allegiance.” (NOTE: This post was riginally uploaded to the AARP AAPI Community Facebook page.)

“I remember we started the school day, each day, with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my school house window as I recited the words, ‘with liberty, and justice for all.’”

Takei recalled his experience as a child, sent with his entire family to a concentration camp along with more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent – including, like Takei, half who were born in the US and therefore American citizens – during World War II.

Now, at age 78, Takei is pledging again, making his Broadway debut in “Allegiance,” which tells the story of Japanese American incarceration inspired by Takei’s childhood. The parallels between the 1940s incarceration and the national mood today are striking. The news is filled with politicians speaking out against accepting refugees from the Middle East, and some are stoking a palpable fear within the public over Muslims.

Takei has spoken out eloquently on his vast social media networks in response to the hate-filled climate – he even invited David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia to come see a performance of “Allegiance” after the mayor announced he didn’t want any Syrian refugees in his city, and cited the Japanese American incarceration as a model. The mayor said the threat from ISIS via refugees is “just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”

Takei criticized the mayor for his “galling lack of compassion” and added, “…one of the reasons I am telling our story on Broadway eight times a week in ‘Allegiance’ is because of people like you. You who hold a position of authority and power, but you demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons. So Mayor Bowers, I am officially inviting you to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you, too, will come away with more compassion and understanding.”

Educating the public about what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, when 120,000 people of Japanese heritage (half were US-born American citizens) were removed from the West Coast and sent to nine concentration camps as far east as Arkansas, is one of Takei’s lifelong goals. His family spent the war years in Rowher, Arkansas.

“I’m always shocked when I tell the story (of Japanese American incarceration) to people that I consider well-informed,” he said, “and they’re shocked and aghast that sometime like this could happen in the United States. It’s still little-known. So, it’s been my mission to raise the awareness of this chapter of American history.”

“Allegiance” accomplishes Takei’s goal with Broadway grandeur that matches any hit musical, with songs that soar and tug at heartstrings, tight choreography and a storyline that is familiar to many Japanese Americans, but not to the public at large.
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Time machine re-post: Why can’t I be on TV?

NOTE: This is a slightly revised (added “Courtship of Eddie’s Father”) re-post of a very early column I wrote back in 1998, bemoaning the lack of Asian faces on TV shows.

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Like a zillion other people across the country, I tuned in to the final episode of “Seinfeld,” and I gotta say, I was only mildly impressed. Oh, I liked the show whenever I caught it, but I was a casual viewer, so the nasty humor that the characters reveled in didn’t connect with me the way they may have for diehard fans.

What the show did, especially with its segments making fun of foreigners, was get me thinking about Asian faces on TV. As a Japanese-American kid enchanted by American popular culture of the 1960s, it never occurred to me growing up that there were very few people like me on the shows I watched for hours on end.
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Meet Frank Jang and the Chinatown Photographic Society

Frank Jang at the Chinatown Photographic Society in San Francisco.

Frank Jang at the Chinatown Photographic Society in San Francisco.

As a visitor walks down the steps to the gallery space, he’s greeted by the buzz of people discussing photography. Bright lighting illuminates dozens of great photographs mounted, framed and arranged on the walls. Photographers are looking through their portfolios of work, giving each other advice. In a separate room, a group of photographers is crouched around a computer screen, clicking through images and discussing which is best.

This is the Chinatown Photographic Society (CPS) in San Francisco, and it’s a hub of creative energy, humming with purpose and resulting in an incredible high level of artistic work on the walls.

And, surprisingly, most of the photographers in the room are 50+. Many of the Society’s members are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The oldest member is 94. He, along with several other current members, were on hand at the start, when the CPS was formed 48 years ago. Just think: in 1967 San Francisco was in the throes of “The Summer of Love” and Chinatown was the undisputed center of Northern California’s Chinese community and culture.
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Being JA v2.0 is here, and I’m so glad to be JA!

I gave a re0ent reading to a full house at the Japanese American Museum in San Jose's lovely Japantown, and had a blast.

I gave a recent reading to a full house at the Japanese American Museum in San Jose’s lovely Japantown, and had a blast.

During a recent trip to San Francisco to attend the annual conference of the Asian American Journalists Association, I squeezed in two readings from the new revised edition of my book, “Being Japanese American.” The two events reminded me why I wrote the book in the first place and why I love speaking to JA audiences. I love being JA!

The first edition was published in 2004, but a lot has happened since then: Japanese culture is even more popular now in the US than a decade ago, but so is Asian American culture in general. The Internet was around in 2004, but social media has exploded on the scene since “Being JA” v1.0 came out. During those years, Asian American have been early adopters and leading lights on blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – we’ve embraced digital media because we’re invisible in mainstream media.

Yet, even in mainstream media, we’ve made some huge strides: Hollywood movies still suffers from “yellowface” casting of whites in Asian roles, but there are more of us in starring and co-starring roles. John Cho was even cast the romantic lead in a short-lived sitcom this year, and “Fresh Off the Boat,” the comedy that showcases an AAPI family, is filming a second season.

In a sad reminder of our inherent “foreignness” in the US, the March 11, 2011 disaster in Japan of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear meltdown sparked a fury of racists all over social media shouting how the disaster was god’s revenge on Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor — as if the US disintegrating Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atom bombs weren’t “revenge” enough. Whenever ugly emotions like that well up from under the shallow surface of political correctness, I and other JAs are reminded how we’re easily lumped together with events in Japan, even if we’re generations removed. That’s what caused our community to be imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II, and what caused many of us to grow up dreading December 7 every year, when we’d be pelted by the stings of hateful taunts from other kids “Remember Pearl Harbor!” The tsunami stirred up a lot of the same emotions for me.

So it made sense when my publisher Stone Bridge Press reached out and asked me to update the book with new text, additional historical photos and interviews with more JAs, Japanese Canadians and mixed-race Japanese.

The book covers he history of Japanese immigration and of course the WWII concentration camp experience, but it’s also about our culture, community, food and families, and the future of JAs.
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“Fresh Off the Boat” could be the tipping point on TV for Asian Americans

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There’s a new ABC sitcom being aired starting in February that I can hardly wait to see. I’m hoping “Fresh Off the Boat” will finally be a show where I can see people like me acting the way my family acts, with funny American situations but filtered through an Asian cultural perspective. I expect it’ll be a moment of critical mass for Asians on the U.S. pop consciousness.

It’s about time.

As a baby boomer, I grew up with very few Asian Americans on television. Few enough that everyone stood out. Even until recent years, my wife and I would point to the TV everytime we saw a minor character on TV played by an Asian, or an Asian face on a TV commercial, and yell, “Asian spotting!”

Among the first notable Asian Americans to be spotted on the small screen was Hawaii-born Filipino musician and comic Poncie Ponce, who was cast as the wise-cracking, ukulele-playing cab driver Kazuo “Kim” Quizado on the detective drama “Hawaiian Eye” which aired from 1959-1963.

My earliest memories of seeing an Asian on TV were of Hop Sing, the Chinese cook on “Bonanza,” a Western that also debuted in 1959 but ran until 1973. Hop Sing, played by U.S.-born actor Victor Sen Yung, wore a long queue hanging from under his cap, and diligently fed the Cartwright family for the run of the series, though I don’t recall that he ever cooked up Chinese food, or Chinese American dishes like chop suey, for Hoss and the others. He did face racism in a few episodes, though.
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