Santa Anita Racetrack has ties with San Diego musical ‘Allegiance’

For an older generation, Santa Anita Racetrack was a place of a horrible past where their allegiance to their country and home was questioned and where the horse stalls served as a unwelcome home away from home. George Takei was a child when he was taken there to stay until he and his family were sent on to another place in Arkansas. Currently, George Takei is in the musical “Allegiance” which had its world premiere at the San Diego Old Globe Theatre.

Takei was sent to Santa Anita Race Track in 1942 and was transferred to Rohwer War Relocation Center (Desha County, Arkansas) in autumn 1942 and then to Tule Lake War Relocation Center.  In “Allegiance,” he begins by playing the stone-faced bitter bachelor Sammy Kimura. The year is December 7, 2001, the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. A woman comes to see him  at his home in San Francisco. He’s dressed up in his World War II uniform; he served in the 442nd.

“Every Pearl Harbor Day, they prop me up to prove I’m still alive,” he tells the woman. The woman isn’t a reporter, but the executor of his sister’s estate. He hasn’t seen his sister Kei (Lea Salonga) for 60 years. “The military was my family,” he explains.

Going back to 1941, we see Sammy, now played by Telly Leung, as an enthusiastic, popular high school student, living on the family farm in Salinas. He’s just been elected class president at Salinas High, the first Japanese American to be so honored. That doesn’t impress his father, the widowed Tatsuo Kimura (Paul Nakauchi); he has crops to nurture and harvest.

Sammy complains, “My father’s never had a kind word for me, all my life.”

Kei, Sammy’s sister (Lea Salonga), is much older and has been a mother to Sammy. She shares Sammy’s joy at winning. Tatsuo’s father, Ojii-san (Takei), also helps smooth things out and here Takei provides comic relief–a stark contrast to his portrayal of the older Sammy.

By December, Sammy’s father, Tatsuo, will be in solitary confinement at Tule Lake. The family ends up being taken to Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming (which opened in August 1942), the home of the infamous No-No Boys.  It’s at Heart Mountain that Sammy becomes what some will call Mike Masaoka’s (Paolo Montalban) “lap dog.”

Masaoka was never interned is in Washington, D.C. working as the youngest National Secretary and Field Executive for the Japanese American Citizens League. He wants the interned Japanese Americans to “trust in the fairness of the American” system. According to the play (book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione), Masaoka was behind the loyalty oath that all internees were required to sign. Two questions were particularly controversial and while the government wanted a yes, yes the Fair Play Committee wanted a no, no response.

As it happens, Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), a man who had hoped to attend law school at USC, take an interest in Kei, eventually marrying her. Frankie becomes one of the leaders of the Fair Play Committee.

The polarized positions of Frankie and Sammy are what pull the family apart, particularly after the humorous influence of Ojii-san is eliminated with his death. While Sammy joins the army and is one of the survivors of the 442nd’s Lost Battalion battle where 800 Japanese American soldiers died to save 200 Caucasian soldiers, Frankie serves time in jail for his rebellion. That’s what breaks up the family.

What breaks Sammy’s heart is more recent revelations about that man who proclaimed himself as “Moses,” when he learns Masaoka was willing to have suicide brigades to bring attention to Japanese American soldiers. Yet it’s too easy to criticize Masaoka without recalling how things have changed. Would you be a Sammy or a Frankie?

In these times where everyone seems more than willing to protest anything and positive coverage is given to nuclear energy protestors such as Martin Sheen, anti-war protestors such as Ed Asner or Occupy Wall Street protestors, it is easy to demonize Masaoka. But consider the conventions of that time period. Consider how real Americans act now when faced with an uncomfortable problem. Masaoka remains a controversial figure in the Japanese American community and recent discoveries had made him more so.

The voices are beautiful, the dancing good (choreography by  Andrew Palermo) and the set aptly conveys through projected images the times. Director Stafford Arima smoothly transitions from the serious to the comical and for those unfamiliar with Takei’s stage work, you might be surprised how facile he is with comedy. Besides Tony Award winning Salonga, there’s plenty of Broadway talent in the cast. Lee (Frankie) has appeared on Broadway in “Pacific Overtures, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Rent,” and, of course, “Miss Saigon.” Leung appears in a Broadway revival of “Godspell” but Gleeks might be more familiar with him as the Dalton Academy Warbler named Wes. Montalban was also in “Pacific Overtures” on Broadway as well as “The King and I.” He also played the prince opposite Brandy in the Disney musical movie “Cinderella.” Nakauchi understudied and performed as the King of Siam in the 1996 revival of “The King and I” and was one of the voices in the TV cartoon series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

The music and lyrics by Jay Kuo are fun, but not particularly memorable. Overall, this is a good solid musical with a lot of heart and honest emotional intent.

Some people might be troubled that the actors who play Japanese Americans might not look particularly Japanese or even East Asian. Others might just be thankful that we aren’t seeing yellowface.

What was more interesting was that the theater was packed. My elderly aunt, who had also been taken to Santa Anita Racetrack and later would be assigned to Poston Camp III, the internment camp in Arizona, was surprised that the audience was predominately non-Asian. What a change times have seen.

Once few people came forward to support the Japanese Americans of San Diego. Now, in a single night approximately 600 people were coming out to hear the story of families like ours. A small free exhibit open prior to each show includes an aerial photos of Poston III and even a high school photograph of my uncle, my aunt and mother’s oldest brother. This is essentially the story of many families in San Diego, in Los Angeles and, unfortunately, is the story of families with loved ones in Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

A lot have changed, but not enough. For some the wounds are so deep they may never heal and certainly the internees will never forget. My aunt still remembers the row she lived in at the Santa Anita Racetrack and her block number in Poston.

“Allegiance” continues until Oct. 21, 2012 at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. For more information, visit their website.

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