I went to the Fathom Events screening of George Takei’s Allegiance at my local theater this evening. This actually wasn’t the first time I’d seen Allegiance, but I hadn’t seen the show since it was in previews. It’s been tightened up and improved a lot since then. I’m so grateful to Fathom and the Allegiance creators for giving us all a chance to see the Broadway version of this show with the original Broadway cast, and with the best seats in the house.
The cast were all amazing. Lea Salonga was no surprise, of course. George Takei was both moving and funny in his Broadway debut. Katie Rose Clarke was charming as Nurse Hannah. Christopheren Nomura was especially powerful as the demanding, unforgiving father in the Kimura family, Tatsuo. Michael K Lee and Greg Watanabe also gave strong performances.
But my favorite was Telly Leung. He carries the show as Sam Kimura, the Japanese-American young man trying to make things right with his country, people, and family. He starts out as an untested but idealistic young man, then is forced to move to the internment camps. He decides he needs to stand up for his principles, no matter the cost, and falls in love with a white Army nurse (Hannah) along the way. He decides he is an American first, and Japanese-American second, so he will fight for his country in the war if given the chance. Sam is a leader and a hero, organizing his people in the camps to make life more bearable, and becoming a war hero when he is finally allowed to enlist. His unit is sent on one suicide mission after another, and it’s only the thought that what he’s doing will help his family and other Japanese-Americans that keeps him going. By the time the war ends, he is emotionally devastated, wanting only to reunite with Nurse Hannah and his family. But his family has taken the opposite political approach, viewing the US government as their enemy, and fighting government policies to the point of ending up in jail. They don’t respect Sam’s suffering or sacrifices, and their actions lead to Hannah’s death. Sam and his family’s differences lead to a rift that lasts the rest of their lives. Telly Leung plays all of this with understated depth. Sam needs to be a contrast to his stubborn, intense father, and his firebrand brother-in-law. Telly hits just the right notes, conveying passion, love, flirtiness, battle fatigue, despair, and rage with a sense of control, of a man who prides himself on being reasonable and fair, even as he’s being torn apart inside. George Takei plays the elderly version of Sam. The mirroring of the two is done well, along with the mirroring of Telly’s Sam with Takei’s other character, the elderly grandfather of the family. Let’s hope that Telly has many more chances as a Broadway leading man.
The choreography for this show was very entertaining. I love swing dancing, and the swing jazz that goes along with it (that’s appropriate to the period as well). Higher was also a great show stopper of a song for Lea Salonga. I didn’t love all of the songs though. The music is one of the elements that’s been tightened up since the previews, but some of them are just too clunkily written to help.
One of the central conflicts of the show, how the Japanese-Americans should respond to being interred, is acted out by Frankie (the brother in law) and Sam. Neither is totally right or wrong. In fact, it probably took elements from both sides to obtain freedom in the end. Allegiance showed the conflict between taking the slower, cooperative, seemingly more peaceful route vs the faster, rebellious, potentially more violent route much better than Captain America: Civil War did this past summer.*
There were two parts of Allegiance that really bothered me. First, Kei rejects Hannah’s offers of help and friendship over and over, then suddenly decides to trust her to help Frankie escape. Frankie’s hotheadedness accidentally gets Hannah killed and this is all framed by the characters as Hannah being their great friend and sacrificing herself to save him. It feels disingenuous to me after the number of times Kei rebuffed Hannah rudely. Kei didn’t owe Hannah anything when she was one of their oppressors, but it was also wrong to pretend that Frankie hadn’t caused Hannah’s death.
I also didn’t like the ending. I hate that it ends with Sam taking responsibility for abandoning the family after the war. That takes some of the power of the show and the character away. He fought so hard for what he believed in, just like the rest of the family, and he was clearly pushed out by the rest of the family. It would have been better to write an actual reconciliation scene with the elderly siblings finding some peace and understanding with each other, or to show us how Sam continued to honor and work for his family and people for the rest of his life, even if the rift between them was never repaired. We were shown that pride and dignity were important to Frankie and Tatsuo, even worth going to prison for, but then they expected Sam to swallow his so that he could live with a family who didn’t respect his life choices and had quickly replaced him. That’s a lot of hypocrisy, and a lot for Kei to expect from her beloved baby brother. It made Kei, Frankie and Tatsuo hard to like in the end.
All three characters had been heroes the audience could respect in their own ways up until that point. Kei had been the peacemaker and caretaker in her family, and took on that role in the community. She lead the women in forming a secret letter writing campaign to let the wider world know about the hardships being inflicted on the prisoners in the camps. But she made no ability to see her brother’s side of the story. She expected him to instantaneously accept the family’s choices no matter how much they had taken from him. All of the characters except the grandfather suffered from their inabilty to see each others’ points of view, including Sam, but he paid a much greater price than the others for it.
Overall, I love the story. The big picture aspect of the story is gripping, with so many lives at stake both on the battlefield and in the camps. The love stories and family stories flesh it out and make it relatable. I was nearly in tears over and over. It’s shameful to think that our country has been capable of this in the recent past, and could be moving toward it again. I’m a big fan of the importance of due process, and this is why. You can go a long way toward protecting human rights by simply forcing the government to follow the constitution and provide just cause for locking people up. It affects everyone from the small time repeat offender local cops and judges are sick of seeing on up to political prisoners in Guantanomo Bay. Hamilton may have more contemporary music, but this is an important story that needs to be shared today.
*I loved CA:CW, but not because they did a good job explaining Tony and Steve’s positions on the Accords. They purposely blurred those lines to have the audience split evenly on who was right and who was wrong, and the directors freely admit that. Allegiance shows us the benefits and pitfalls of both sides.