Allegiance the musical and the empathy of theater

I was talking about theater versus television and movies the other day with coworkers and I mentioned that while I usually want my movies and TV shows (and books!) to be fun and relaxing, I don’t mind it if the theater productions I see are more challenging. I joked that it’s because I usually live with a book or a show for longer than the two or three hours it takes to see a show, but there’s another reason. I mostly consume books, TV shows, and movies alone, but I almost always go to the theater with friends. When you see something that challenges you, it helps to have someone to process it with. On Saturday I went to see the new musical Allegiance alone, but I had already talked about it with a number of people and was meeting a friend who’d already seen it for drinks afterward.

If you haven’t heard about Allegiance, it’s what you may have heard referred to as the George Takei musical, because it both stars George Takei and was inspired by his own life. As a young child his family was taken away to Japanese internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Allegiance tells the story of a family forced out of their homes to face all the trials and suffering that comes from the US government cruelly forcing people of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens, into terrible living conditions in camps during World War II.

It’s a timely moment for this often-overlooked, shameful part of our history to be dramatized, with Donald Trump last month calling to ban all Muslins from entering the country. George Takei has responded by holding a seat for Trump at every performance of Allegiance since then – I didn’t think to look for it on Saturday night, but I hope it’s still there. Or if it isn’t, that it’s gone because Trump actually went to see the show.

Because here’s the thing about Allegiance: it tells an important story. I remember learning about the Japanese internment camps in high school, mostly because I remember reading the book Snow Falling on Cedars as a senior, but in general it feels like a part of World War II that gets glossed over to focus on the terrible atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Don’t get me wrong – we need to talk about the Holocaust, always – but it’s hypocritical to act like rounding up Japanese Americans because they, as George Takei has said, looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor is totally different from sending people to concentration camps.

I love historical fiction of all kinds because I think that story is the fastest way to understanding and empathy. I can read all the facts of what Japanese Americans went through during this time, but it can feel a bit abstract. When I sit in a theater and watch a family lose its livelihood and then break apart because of a government that has chosen not to see them as people, the history becomes real. The people affected by racist policies during that period are people just like you and me, and if we don’t learn from what happened then, tomorrow we, or our loved ones, could face the same futures as George Takei and his real and fictional families.

Allegiance isn’t a great musical, as musicals go. I had multiple friends tell me before I went that the music and lyrics weren’t very good, and I have to agree. But that didn’t stop me from caring about the characters, from enjoying the humor and wisdom George Takei brought to his roles or the beautiful singing and presence Lea Salonga brought to hers. And it didn’t stop me from crying a boatload of tears at the end when the moment of family estrangement we know is coming (the whole show is told as a flashback from the present day) finally arrives. I suspect that the casual musical-goer will like the music fine – all the friends who saw it and commented on the music were people who love musicals as much as I do, so our expectations were maybe a bit high. And some post show research has taught me that Allegiance takes liberties with the historical record — some minor, some major, all worth understanding — which makes me hope seeing the show encourages us all to learn more about this period.

Allegiance is closing on Valentine’s Day – it hasn’t done very well, which is unfortunate. This is a story that needs to be told, and really, I hope it’s the first of many stories told on Broadway about Japanese Americans. Next year maybe we can get a contemporary story with Asian American leads. Broadway is becoming more inclusive of different kinds of stories from people with different identities (see Hamilton, Fun Home, Spring Awakening) and it is growth I will continue to support. The audience on Saturday night included a great number of people of Asian descent, something another friend noted as well, which makes me hopeful that as the shows become more inclusive, so will the audiences. The more stories we tell, the more we realize how universal our experiences are. Good theater builds empathy, and empathy makes the world a better place.

Allegiance runs through 2/14. There’s a daily digital lotto with $39 seats, as well as a rush line. I showed up on Saturday evening about two hours before curtain and was able to snag a $49 ticket in the balcony. It was well worth it, and the theater was pretty full. If you have the opportunity to see Allegiance, do it – you’ll learn a lot and you’ll see some topnotch performers. You’ll also show your support for bringing more inclusive stories to Broadway in the future. If you can’t go, do some Googling and teach yourself about the Japanese internment camps. History is important.

1 Comment

  1. Beautiful thoughts on inclusiveness in storytelling!

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