This February marked 80 years since United States president Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, leading to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans in desolate camps by their own country during World War II. Eighty years may sound like a long time, but it's less than a lifetime ago: People who were children in the camps are still alive today, such as film and TV actor George Takei, who was a child when he and his family were forcibly moved to camps in Arkansas and Tule Lake, California.
Takei's childhood in the camps inspired composer Jay Kuo and producer Lorenzo Thione to create "Allegiance," a musical loosely based on Takei's experiences, that debuted on Broadway in 2015, with Takei in the cast. Kuo wrote the music and lyrics, and co-wrote the show's book, along with Thione and Marc Acito.
"Allegiance" was the first show created by Asian Americans, directed by an Asian American and with a predominantly Asian American cast to appear on Broadway, according to American Theatre Magazine.
Palo Alto Players is now bringing the musical to the Peninsula. "Allegiance" runs April 22 through May 8 at the Lucie Stern Theatre.
"Allegiance" tells the story of the Kimura family, who after Pearl Harbor, are forced from their Salinas home, along with about 120,000 other Japanese Americans, to live in camps in remote areas of the United States. Young adult son Sammy hopes to show his patriotism by becoming a soldier and fighting in the war, but his sister, Kei, joins with others at the camp to protest the government's unjust treatment of its own people.
The Players' production of "Allegiance" was delayed by two years due to the pandemic, and if anything, during that time, the show seems to have increased in its timeliness, said Director Vinh G. Nguyen.
"This story is ever relevant to what we're experiencing today in our collective society," he said, noting recent attacks on and murders of Asian American people.
"It's frightening to see these crimes still being committed against the Asian American community. That's still happening at a different level of scale, but I hope that this show reminds us that it's not gone yet. But I think the biggest message that I want people to take away is the resilience and the celebration of the human spirit during times of hardship, and really strive to come together as a community."
The title "Allegiance" has several meanings, Nguyen said — not just loyalty to country, but also emphasizing the ties between family members.
"I think it's about how, despite differing paths, different beliefs, that the connection of family is something that is very important, it binds us all together," said actor Ron Munekawa, who plays the dual roles of Ojii-chan, who is the grandfather of Sammy and Kei, and an older version of Sammy, now called Sam, whom we meet in 2001.
"That's one emphasis of the show. I think the other is one of conviction. You have two opposite characters. Sammy, who like many Japanese Americans decided to enlist in the army to prove that, in fact, they are Americans — that they have allegiance to the United States — but there's also a character, Frankie Suzuki, who also has a very strong conviction that being incarcerated is not right," Munekawa said.
The difference in beliefs among the Kimuras, made even more stark by a government "loyalty questionnaire," tests family bonds.
A musical with such a setting may seem unexpected, but Kuo's music helps bring a complex story to life, said Nguyen.
"The music is incredibly smart, very intricate, very plot-driven and character-driven. ... I think if anything, the music really helps punctuate the emotions of very real people in these circumstances," he said, noting that the music also cleverly underscores various aspects of the characters, emphasizing for example, generational differences.
"Any time that an elder character from the show sings, it is woven in with taiko drums with traditional musical instrumentation to really portray that very traditional voice of the character, and then when a younger character sings, it's what we know as typical musical theater songs. And so I think that's a really cool way to kind of help flesh out characters or give hints to who these characters are and what they're feeling at the time," Nguyen said.
Takei originated the roles of Ojii-chan and Sam in the Broadway production that Munekawa is playing for the Palo Alto Players. Portraying two characters who are grandfather and grandson, at roughly the same age, was a challenge, Munekawa said.
"Ojii-chan observes more than he speaks, although he certainly does have his own convictions that are expressed in the show. And then of course, Sam is much more demonstrative, much more open with his emotions. For Ojii-chan, what I do try to think of are my grandparents who were isseis (first-generation immigrants), who were born in Japan and came to the United States, and use that as a model for the character," he said.
To portray Sam, Munekawa said he also did a lot of research on the soldiers who served in the 442nd regiment, a segregated army unit made up of Japanese American soldiers, commanded by white officers. But he said he also looks to his castmate, Jomar Martinez, who plays the same character as a young adult.
"I do like to watch as he works in the scenes as Sammy to gain a greater understanding of what makes him tick, what causes him to express himself in certain ways. (I look at) how ironclad he is in his convictions, and once he finds that some of those convictions may not be exactly what he thought, how devastating that is to him," Munekawa said.
As a director, Nguyen has particular insight into the show, having played Sammy in the Bay Area premiere production of "Allegiance" in 2018 at Contra Costa Civic Theatre.
"When I was doing that show, I wanted to make sure that I was the most knowledgeable person about my character in the room at all times, so I did a lot of research then. And with this, we wanted to make sure that the cast has access and resources about the historical context of the show so that we can tell the story in a respectful and dignified way," Nguyen said.
Research for the show included bringing the cast for a tour of the Japanese American Museum in San Jose, which has an exhibit on the camps, and bringing guest speaker Rev. LaVerne Sasaki, who is a camp survivor, to talk to cast members. The cast also worked with dialect coach and cultural consultant Patrick Chew.
Underscoring just how recent history the camps truly are, Munekawa is one of three actors in the cast who have family members who were imprisoned there.
"My parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, extended family, cousins, were all incarcerated during the war," he said.
Performing in a show with such a strong tie to his family history has set apart this production for him.
"I think there is much more of a personal connection, that this is really a story that is in part the story of my family's legacy. To me, it is much more important that I am as authentic as I possibly can be. Even though I didn't go through those times, being authentic is key to me. And that's the way I really respect my family story — the story of 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated during the war. Through that testimony, I'm hoping to bring a measure of respect and appreciation for what they went through," Munekawa said.
He said that the hard work that it took for his family to rebuild their lives after their incarceration is what has enabled him to be an actor.
"It's not because my parents were incarcerated, it's more about what they did after the war to reconstruct their lives, to make sure that their families were provided for," Munekawa said. "That really opened up an opportunity for a Japanese American, me, to be on stage. They really set a framework that was supportive for me and my brothers, the rest of my siblings, to pursue activities that I think probably would have been something that was unforeseeable for my parents."
Editor's Note: The Palo Alto Players announced on Tuesday, May 2, that all remaining in-person performances of "Allegiance" have been canceled "due to breakthrough COVID-19 cases in the company." Ticket-holders for upcoming in-person performances will be contacted by the box office, the announcement said. The company has extended the availability of its on-demand streaming option through Sunday, May 22, at midnight. On-demand tickets are $20. For more information, visit paplayers.org.