Allegiance, the new Broadway musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, begins and ends with a paean to forgiveness. The opening and closing lines and song refer to a standoff of more than 50 years between a brother and sister. It’s 2001, and a woman appears at Sam Kimura’s door to tell him that his long-estranged sister, Kei, has died. The ghost of Kei (powerhouse Lea Salonga) sings from the shadows: “A chance for forgiveness / After all these years gone by.… We used to be a family / In those days before / We were broken by the war / By the war.” In the frame of the story, she is addressing her brother; in the Longacre Theatre, she is addressing a contemporary American audience, metaphorically seeking reconciliation in the remembrance of a shameful national crime.
Quickly, the scene flashes back to 1941, when young Sammy (winsome tenor Telly Leung) arrives home from a lackluster year at college to his family’s artichoke farm in Salinas, California. Before we hear Franklin Roosevelt announce the “date that will live in infamy,” there’s just enough time for a harvest-festival number that both celebrates Japanese heritage and adheres to the standard construction of a conventional musical: a wishing-tree ritual serves as an occasion for the community elders, dressed in yukata, to perform a traditional dance, and (with typically banal lyrics) for the audience to hear “I Want” verses from Sammy (“I wish that I didn’t have to play the good son”), Kei (“I wish that I didn’t have to play the mother”), and the two in unison (“I’ve got to make a brand new start.… New dreams with new mysteries / Someday I’ll unravel them / New roads with new histories / Someday I will travel them.”)
The road they all soon end up taking is the forced one to a “relocation center” in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where the primary action is set—and the sibling conflict is set off. Sammy, heeding the call of the Japanese American Citizens League to prove the community’s patriotism, enlists (after, that is, the JACL has convinced the United States to admit Japanese Americans to its ranks, albeit in a segregated unit) and proves himself heroic in battle. Kei, meanwhile, supports the men in the camp who resist the draft, refusing to serve as long as their relatives remain in detention. As schematically opposed as the Kimura kids are, they follow parallel paths, too. Both fall in love: Kei with Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), who charms as he fervently leads the opposition to the draft; Sammy with Hannah Campbell (Katie Rose Clarke), a white nurse, whose empathy he awakens. The other two family members starkly represent other positions: the father, Tatsuo (royal baritone Christòpheren Nomura), declines to sign the infamous, catch-22 loyalty pledge presented to all adult internees and is sent to a stockade; the grandfather, Ojii-chan (adorable George Takei, who also does a gruff turn as 80-year-old Sam), tries to hang on and make the best of things, planting a garden in the desert. It’s the high commitment of the cast—especially of Takei, who inspired the project with his own childhood experience as an internee—that gives these mouthpieces any texture at all.
In general, the plot is cliché-ridden: a son trying to prove his worthiness to a demanding father, women cheering on their brave boyfriends, politics humanized into domestic dispute, historical facts pumped up to rouse emotion. (Among other exaggerations, the scene of arrival at the camp falsely shows Nazi-like separation processes; a key plot point hinges on a highly improbable gunshot.)
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The score follows the popera playbook, with ballads and booming anthems making up most of the 22 songs. Nods to cultural specificity—some pentatonic riffs, and sounds of a whiny samisen and wispy flute —often fade into old formulas. A central song, for example, reprised twice, seeks to introduce a Japanese concept: “There’s a word we will say / To help get through each day / We will bear / Any nightmare / With a simple refrain / Gaman / Gaman / Sturdy and sure / Keep faith and endure.” This is also known, in old Broadway idiom, as “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high.” A cheery number extolling the fun of baseball (Sammy is trying to encourage activities to make life in the camp bearable) feels like someone’s bad idea for inserting uplift into the show.
Nonetheless, I found myself crying almost as much as I cringed. Though one may well know the bald fact that some 120,000 Japanese-Americans were detained in camps through the duration of the war, watching how families were disrupted, degraded, and torn apart stirs the imagination and opens the heart. A righteous anger seethes beneath the show’s perkiness and platitudes. Two tunes, which have a level of complexity that escapes the rest of the show, convey such indignation effectively. Frankie leads a satirical song about the freezing, filthy conditions in the camp (“Paradise”), and even better, three white guys in uniform harmonize about the end of the war in “442 Victory Swing”—“We thought you were the enemy / You proved us wrong / Now just get back home where you belong / The whole messy business: whoopsie doo!” With Kander and Ebb–style edge, the number follows a stark representation of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Also working in the show’s favor is the fact that Sammy makes a dubious hero. Though he’s the romantic lead, one can’t quite cheer for him as he eagerly goes off, as his father puts it, to “put on the same uniform as soldiers who point guns at us.” Sammy’s answer—“We’re all Americans”—is true enough. But it’s galling that he has to prove it, and doesn’t mind.
That sentiment may explain why this material has been turned into a musical at all. Takei (most famous as Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu and, more recently, as a social-media meme-maker) likely could have amassed the backing for a feature film or TV mini-series. Why did he want to tell this story in the Broadway milieu? In many pre-show interviews, he recounted how his chance meeting at the theater with Jay Kuo (composer, lyricist, co-librettist) and Lorenzo Thione (co-librettist, with Kuo and Marc Acito) led to their collaboration.
But underneath that happenstance, the genre itself must have exerted its pull: The musical, invented by new Americans, has always been a form for stories of inclusion, through which particular groups have staked their claim in and to American culture, from Irene to Street Scene, Fiddler on the Roof, Ragtime, In the Heights, and beyond. It’s astonishing, actually, that Allegiance is the first major musical created, directed, and mostly performed by Asian Americans, presenting a story about Asian Americans. For all its limitations, Allegiance opens doors as it offers a too-timely reminder of the deplorable results that war hysteria can lead to. (At least one public official has favorably invoked the internment of the Japanese to argue against admitting any more Syrian refugees into the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris.) With luck, Allegiance could help make audiences more receptive to complex recent plays like Ken Narasaki’s No-No Boy (based on the novel by John Okada), about the 1946 return of a jailed Japanese-American draft resister, and Dorinne Kondo’s Seamless, a post-memory comic drama about the impact of the internment on the children’s generation.
That our pop-culture images of Asians and Asian-Americans remain largely limited to stereotypes and fantasies—from South Pacific’s submissive Liat to emasculated (and yellowface) Charlie Chan, from the China Doll to the Dragon Lady, the perpetual foreigner to the model minority—is the all-important context in which debates over representation and casting of Asian characters continue to erupt in the theater. In September, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players cancelled its announced production of The Mikado—the 1885 Victorian satire set in a wacky, fictionalized Japan—after an outcry against promotional photos that showed grinning white actors in yellowface. (The group is presenting Pirates of Penzance instead.) Several weeks ago, the playwright Lloyd Suh pulled his play, Jesus in India, from a production at Clarion University, a small state school in western Pennsylvania, when he learned, a couple of weeks before performances were to begin, that the play’s three Indian characters would be played by two white students and one mixed-race student (with no South Asian heritage).
Much of the commentary on this casting contretemps has sided with the director, a Clarion professor, Marilouise Michel, who has blamed Suh for doing harm to the cast and crew by unfairly yanking a project they had worked hard on. Her op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education decrying his action is ominously titled, “How Racial Politics Hurt My Students.” (Apparently the language of injury, much-maligned in commentary about the current wave of campus protests for racial justice, is more apt for white kids doing a play than for African-American kids who are stopped and frisked on the quad.) In the article, Michel asks, “Isn’t it our job to teach our students to think, probe, and look at all issues from varying viewpoints…?” Of course. And it’s to her credit that she was interested in teaching the play in the first place, on a campus whose student body is less than 1 percent Asian or Asian-American.
Still, I want to chime in on Suh’s side of this dispute in the hopes of looking with some nuance at the conundrum of on-stage racial representation. It’s too easy (as some of the comments on Michel’s article, and others, suggest) to inveigh against “political correctness” or “racial oversensitivity,” or, more generously, to deplore the missed opportunity for a predominantly white school to encounter an unfamiliar world through a contemporary play. I fear that these glosses will become the only lesson for the Clarion students, who indeed must be hugely disappointed that their show was canceled.
First, some technical issues relevant to this particular case. Suh has explained that he was not aware, until shortly before the play was slated to open, that students had already spent time working on a production in which his express artistic wishes—for actors of Asian descent in Asian roles—and the agreement he thought he’d made—that the production be a classroom project, not a public performance—were not being honored. The timing of his intervention is not his fault. Second, though Michel sent a check to Suh’s agent to secure a license to perform the play, the contract was not signed and executed. On artistic and legal grounds, Suh acted within his rights.
But what about his reasons for feeling compelled to exercise them? Those don’t seem to be included among the “varying viewpoints” Michel wants her students to consider.
Acting is an art of empathy that can allow students to confront unfamiliar perspectives from the “inside” through its peculiar form of make-believe. That’s one reason the play seemed like a great choice for a classroom project. The bigger challenge now is for students to take a different leap of empathy and try to understand why Asian Americans take offense when white actors play Asian roles. Rather than simply asserting that Asian Americans have no right or reason to feel offended, they might imagine the legacy and persistence of ugly caricature. Some students, depending on their backgrounds and affiliations, might find echoes in their (or their ancestors’) experiences of bigotry—and also confront the limits of analogy. They might grapple with the notion that historical and ongoing institutional racism exerts a brutal impact on people of color, even if every one of the cast members engaged Suh’s play with the best of intentions. Can they think about what it might be like if there were hardly any roles for them at all, and even fewer that did not traffic in stereotypes? The representational playing field is not even.
Michel questions, in her op-ed, why it’s okay for an African-American actor to play Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, but not for her white students to play Indian characters. This is all-lives-matter reasoning, based on a false symmetry. There is no dramatic meaning to the idea of Petruchio as white. His race as a character is unmarked, irrelevant. More generally, in a world of white supremacy, whiteness typically remains unmarked: it stands (unjustly) as a generic. Works even in the modern European canon convey this sense of neutrality. We don’t expect only Norwegians to play Ibsen’s Nora or only Russians to play Chekhov’s Arkadina. Today’s white American actor is as distant from the historical and cultural realities of those characters as an African-American, Latina, or Asian-American actor. But characters of color, whose social, cultural or national background is part of the story itself, cannot so easily be swept away into an abstract realm where specific bodies don’t matter. Because in the world these stories depict, alas, they do.
Playwrights themselves may know best that these creative quandaries are touchy, and some have taken them on in smart, fun, self-critical plays. Michel’s class might gain from adding a few to their syllabus. Here are two: Suh’s own Charles Francis Chan, Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery, which offers a hilarious exploration of racist portrayal and the struggle for self-representation. (It just completed a run in New York in a frisky production from NAATCO.) And David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face, a terrific 2007 comedy (the first major play to be adapted for YouTube) that considers the wonders and the limits of a promise the theater shares with America: that everyone can make themselves into whomever they wish.
Plus, for a bit of historical context on one reason Asian Americans have a grievance, a class trip to see Allegiance.