You may not have heard of the recent Broadway musical Allegiance. You might not even have heard of the real, and newly relevant historical event it was based on, the forced internment of Japanese immigrants and American citizens of Japanese descent in what amounted to homegrown, all-American concentration camps during World War II. As a particularly shameful chapter of American history, it’s a story that has often been hidden and suppressed –or is it more accurate to call it overlooked and willfully forgotten?
I know of it largely through a direct personal connection. My grandmother, Suyeko Matsushima Sunami, a natural-born U.S. citizen, was imprisoned in the camps for four years, along with her Japanese-born parents and older siblings (some born here, some born there). It registered in my life more as an absence than a presence. Neither my grandmother nor my great-aunts and great-uncles ever spoke about it. I never heard them mention it even once. The only sign of it was little relics –a collection of arrowheads scavenged from the hard Wyoming dirt, a piece of driftwood hand-polished over many dreary hours into a shining work of art. It was also the reason my father gave why he and his sister had never learned Japanese. After the war, their parents had not wanted them to have any attribute that might single them out from their peers, might make them seem less than American, and more capable of being exiled yet again from American life and citizenship.
It goes without saying that my personal connection to the material shaped my experience of Allegiance, a musical dramatizing the internment. I found it profoundly moving to an extent that shocked me. Perhaps it was because it filled in and made vivid the day-to-day life of a section of my history that had always been almost completely opaque to me –as opaque as I assume it has been for most Americans. I knew better than to take every scene as historically accurate, but taken as a whole, it gave me a living sense of what the experience must have been like for my relatives: What it was to be a young person growing up in an immigrant Japanese family before the war, the suddenness of the transition, the sharp disruption of your journey into independent adulthood, and the stresses, frustrations, and occasional joys of being a prisoner in your own nation for four interminable years.
In addition, with a large part of the story hinging on the controversial loyalty oath demanded from the internees, I finally gained a context for the fact that my Great-Uncle Aki (Akira Matsushima) had been a “No No” boy (someone who refused to sign the oath). It gave me a sense of why he might have made that decision, how much courage it must have taken to do so, and the very real costs to him and to the family for his refusal.
So how was it as a musical? The book was strong, weaving a powerful human-interest story from the interactions and divergent reactions and values of two young couples. The first duo is Sammy Kimura, a passionate American patriot who becomes a decorated WWII hero, and Hannah Campbell, the Caucasian nurse who owns his heart. The second couple is Sammy’s anxious older sister Kei Kimura, and Frankie Suzuki, a conscientious objector and civil rights agitator who is as passionate about his values as Sammy is about his.
The score, on the other hand, while never less than tuneful and accomplished, was far from memorable. Despite having an Asian American composer, it had little Asian flavor, and most resembled accomplished facsimiles of era-appropriate music. Similarly, the staging and visuals were strongly conceived and executed exemplars of stagecraft, but only one production number was truly memorable –Suzuki’s satirical ode to internment life, “Paradise.”
Considered as history, the musical has come under criticism for allegedly exaggerating the brutality and violence of the camp and the friction with the soldiers guarding it. It’s worth noting, however, that that while the odd detail may have been fudged, or enhanced for theatrical impact, the bigger picture is a matter of documented historical record, as are incidents such as the deaths of citizen internees at the hands of military personnel.
Another criticism of the early stagings is that they devalued the service of the Japanese American war veterans and demonized (controversial and polarizing historical figure) Mike Masaoka, who some people view as having saved and shielded the Japanese Americans during the war, but who others view as having cravenly sold them out in exchange for his own security and comfort. Those concerns appear to have been addressed in the filmed staging, with the musical now presenting a very balanced picture that values the choices made by both the patriots and the protestors, and that allows viewers to make up their own minds about Masaoka.
One final note about the musical. I’ll approach it obliquely, with a seemingly unrelated anecdote: When I first started as a professional programmer, the other programmers I worked with with almost exclusively male, and mainly white (with a tiny handful of Asians and Indians thrown in). It was easy to come to the conclusion that white men were the only people who were any good at programming. But when I took my current job (at a large American corporation), I suddenly found myself in an environment where there were nearly as many women programmers as men, and where there were bright and talented programmers of every race and nationality as well –not just a few, but many of them, and succeeding at the same levels as anyone else. Somehow this company had no problem finding an endless supply of something that those other workplaces didn’t even seem to know existed.
Similarly, Allegiance has a largely Asian-American cast, singing, dancing and starring in lead roles, with the handsome hero played by Telly Leung looking every inch the all-American romantic lead, his sister, played by the soulfully beautiful Lea Salonga, bringing real heart to her role as the play’s emotional center, and his nemesis, played by Michael Lee, exuding charisma and attitude. You’ve probably never seen or heard of many of the cast members (probable exceptions include Star Trek star George Takei, a real life former internee who played a crucial role in getting the musical made, and Salonga, who originated the title role in Miss Saigon). Why? Because there aren’t many other shows that give them the chance to shine. But that doesn’t mean talented Asian American actors aren’t out there, and it takes a show like this for them to be able to showcase their talents.
As of now, the show has closed on Broadway, and the theatrical release was a limited engagement, so there isn’t an immediate way to experience Allegiance. But if and when it comes back, I’d urge everyone to see it. It’s an important part of all of our histories.