George Takei has plenty of practice exploring strange new worlds on TV and film, but delving into a painful time in his family’s life onstage is something even he never imagined.
Takei and his family were among thousands of Japanese-Americans put in internment camps during World War II. The 75-year-old “Star Trek” actor’s memories inspired composer/lyricist Jay Kuo to write “Allegiance _ A New American Musical,” which has high hopes of making it to Broadway.
Takei and Tony Award-winner Lea Salonga (“Miss Saigon”) headline the production at The Old Globe in San Diego. Set to open Wednesday, the show follows a Japanese-American war veteran played by Takei who looks back on his family’s time in an internment camp.
“I wanted to turn my childhood experience in the internment camps that we were in into a script. Jay said a musical is much more moving and you’ll reach many more people with a musical,” Takei said in an interview.
It was chance meeting with Kuo in 2008 at a Broadway theater that ignited the idea. Kuo and producer Lorenzo Thione met the actor and his husband and listened to Takei talk about his family’s history.
Two weeks later, Kuo sent Takei a song he had written called “Allegiance,” about a Japanese father trying to respond to a U.S.-issued “loyalty questionnaire.” By 2009, they began doing readings of an entire show.
Kuo, who co-wrote the play with Marc Acio and Thione, understands some people may be skeptical about the idea of internment camps being musical fodder. But he said sometimes a song is the best form of expression, especially in a culture that prides steadfastness and stoicism.
“Asian-Americans don’t really speak an emotional language. Music gives us that permission. In many ways, I think it’s been a huge help for the story to have it told through music,” said Kuo, who also sifted through numerous essays, oral histories and old congressional testimonies from internment survivors.
Takei was 5 years old when soldiers marched onto his front porch with bayonets in May 1942 and ordered his entire family to leave their Los Angeles home. Tears streamed down his mother’s face as she held his baby sister and a duffel bag, “a memory that’s seared into my brain.”
“And then we were taken from there to the horse stables. My mother remembers it as the most degrading experience that she had in her life up to that point,” Takei said. “There were more to follow but she says that was a really terrible feeling.”
It would be nearly four years until the family was able to return to Los Angeles. After more than three months in the cramped Santa Anita Racetrack stables, they were put on a train to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas and later relocated to Camp Tule Lake in Northern California. Takei can vividly recall lining up three times a day to eat in a noisy mess hall and catching pollywogs in a jar for entertainment.
“The other irony that I remember now is when we started school, they taught us the Pledge of Allegiance,” Takei said. “I could see barbed wire fences and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words `liberty and justice for all.’”
Director Stafford Arima, whose father was interned in Canada during the war, said that while the story is about Japanese-Americans, it will resonate with anyone _ regardless of ethnicity.
“It does deal with an Asian-American family but there are wonderful musicals like `Fiddler On the Roof’ that dealt specifically with a Jewish family. Not everyone is Jewish who loves `Fiddler On the Roof,’” Arima said. “I think `Fiddler On the Roof’ is one of those great examples that transcends the ethnic background of the main characters because they’re telling a human story and that is what `Allegiance’ is trying to do.”
The question of whether a show centered on the Asian community and starring Asian actors can fill theater seats sparked controversy at the nearby La Jolla Playhouse this summer.