Sunday, February 19th was the 75h Day of Remembrance (75th anniversary) of the signing of executive order 9066 which led to the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The story behind this and the stories of those who had to face the consequence of this order have been rarely told. Culturally, it is often glossed over or even forgotten in the greater discourse of American history. Recently, however, the Broadway musical, Allegiance, sought to change that by bringing the story of Japanese-American internment into the light, as well as pushing audiences to reflect on how easily this aspect of history could repeat itself today.
In recognition of the 75th Day of Remembrance, a filmed version of Allegiance played in select cinemas across the country. I was fortunate enough to catch a screening at the Marcus Century Theater in Fargo, ND. The play itself gained a lot of recognition from the involvement of George Takei who felt a personal connection to the story having spent 4 years of his childhood in an internment camp with his family. The play also stars Lea Salonga, Telly Leung, and Michael K. Lee along with an almost entirely Asian cast.
What is so striking and compelling about Allegiance is that on top of the well choreographed and often cheery musical numbers, it tells a very tragic, personal and deep story of perseverance and the different forms that it can take in the face of fear and injustice. A central theme of the play comes from the Japanese term, Gaman, which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” The story sees our primary characters forcibly removed from their homes, stripped of many of their possessions, and faced with contempt and fear because they resemble the enemy. In the wake of this, the audience follows the characters’ varied reactions as they struggle to make life livable – and even a little fun – while interned.
The characters’ responses to internment range from a reinvigorated sense of patriotism in order to prove one’s allegiance to the country, a hardened defiance and the desire to fight back, to the simple hope for things to go back to the way they were. Each individual makes a choice and persists (Gaman) in his or her own way. Inevitably, these diverse ideologies and attitudes become divisive, pitting friends against each other and tearing families apart.
What the audience is ultimately privy to is the enormous strain and pressure that these people were forced to undergo all because of a fear left unchecked. We are given the story of the real consequences that this era of internment had on human life – the pain, loss, sorrow, and even death – and the overall degradation of liberty by forgoing our freedoms in the name of security.
After the war ended, those that were interned were simply sent back home with a bus ticket. The attitude of the United States government was unapologetic – in essence making internment out to be a kind of wartime service for our country. The complete disregard for the personal freedoms of the Japanese-Americans was swept under the rug and mostly ignored, but the aura of fear and hatred remained as many faced hostility and even violence when they returned home.
By telling this story in a humanizing way, the creative team behind Allegiance shows us how damning the idea of ‘other-ing’ groups of people can be. The concept of ‘other-ing’ is a tactic to dehumanize others and allow ourselves to succumb to blanket fear and hatred. As evident from the message of the play, the Allegiance team would be the first to point out that if we give in to this fear, let it fester and sacrifice our freedoms in the name of security, we are losing the ideals that we often proclaim to stand for.
While several films, books, television shows, and even stage productions have taken on this theme of freedom vs. security, I’m especially reminded of a quote from Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Captain Picard (attributed to writer, Jeri Taylor), from the episode, The Drumhead: “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.”
A prominent message that Allegiance sends out is that history is poised to repeat itself. The United States has the potential to travel down this path that we’ve traveled many times before as we allow ourselves to let fear override compassion; we are already seeing the first link in the chain. But we can change course. In the face of divisive actions from our government, there have been countless people who’ve protested and looked for ways to support those facing persecution. As Lea Salonga’s character, Kei Kimora, sings in the final act of Allegiance, there’s “still a chance.”