When Allegiance began its official run at the Longacre Theatre on November 8, it became the first major Broadway production since Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (1958, revived in 2002) to feature a largely Asian American lead cast. Unlike the Cold War-era musical about Chinese American assimilation, Allegiance tackles a darker—and remarkably neglected—chapter in American history: the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. The musical is inspired by the personal experiences of George Takei (who stars in the show) and his family, who were incarcerated at the camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, when the actor was five. Centered on one family’s responses to and struggles against racism and injustice, Allegiance tells a story that is at once deeply personal and complex, and that boldly refuses the impulse to end in triumphant redemption.
Those familiar with the history will recognize quickly the general themes and characters of the story. Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung) plays an idealistic Nisei who is determined to prove the loyalty of Japanese Americans when his family gets sent to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and clamors to enlist in the U.S. Army. His protective sister, Kei, (Lea Salonga) urges caution and opts for the path of least resistance, while Ojii-chan, his grandfather played by Takei, preaches “gaman,” endurance with dignity. Family conflicts escalate when the government, following the recommendation of JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) leader, Mike Masaoka, issues the “loyalty questionnaire” to determine the allegiances of the internees, and to allow the “loyal” ones the chance to fight in a segregated unit. Defiant, their father answers “no-no” on the two questions, and is sent to the infamous camp at Tule Lake. As other Nisei continue to protest their unjust treatment at Heart Mountain, Sammy seizes his opportunity to go fight in the war.
If the first act follows a somewhat predictable plot line, concluding with a spectacle of martial patriotism, the second act gets decidedly more complicated. Two years have elapsed since Sammy and others enlisted, and as the war continues to mount, the government mandates a draft for all eligible internees. Indeed that the play is set in Heart Mountain is not insignificant, for this was where internees’ most vocal and organized opposition against the draft took place. Revealing a relatively unknown aspect of the history of internment, the second act opens with Frankie, Kei’s love interest, taking a principled stand against the draft and getting sent to prison, while Sammy, still at war, condemns the draft resisters as “traitors.” Kei emerges in the second act a more complex character as well. In contrast to her accommodating attitude earlier, she sings, “I’m stronger than before, braver than before,” as she mobilizes other women on a letter writing campaign to free the draft resisters.
The musical poignantly captures the extreme precariousness that Japanese Americans endured throughout the war. From the opening scenes when they were forcibly uprooted from their homes and transported to Heart Mountain, where an uncertain future (and armed guards) awaited them, to the series of difficult choices that each individual was compelled to make at every turn, the war’s violence forms a crucial backdrop to the story. In this way, Allegiance stands out among the numerous other Broadway musicals about war that tend to obscure the effects of state violence, often through romance plot lines that reproduce gendered notions of American benevolence and rescue. In one of the play’s most haunting scenes, shadowy figures illumined by quiet light flashes simulate the devastation of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unspoken inhumanity of this scene frames the one that follows immediately, as Americans celebrate the allied “VICTORY!” back home.
Allegiance succeeds as a musical on many levels. It is beautifully produced, and the cast shines through the performance. But beyond these obvious aspects, its best quality, I think, lies in its insistence that there is no simple closure to the story. The play shuns easy villains and heroes, and compels the audience to recognize the legitimacy of each character’s response to their predicament, no matter how they appeared to disagree fundamentally with one another. Moreover, it highlights that tragedy resides not just in the past, but haunts and reverberates into the present. When Sammy, a war hero, returns home to find Kei married to Frankie, the “traitor,” it causes a rift in the family that remains sixty years later. This is the tragedy that the show ultimately leaves us to grapple with. Indeed, while certain audiences might take solace in knowing that this happened in the past, and that Japanese Americans had endured with dignity and moved on, the show defies this sense of absolute closure. It is this refusal that drives and animates struggles for justice in our present, and that Allegiance reminds us to embrace.