A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Broadway: ‘To Be Takei’

A funny thing happened when George Takei tacked social media to pump up interest in a musical being produced in San Diego: He became a media star. Takei has experienced various twists and turns in his career, but perhaps this was the biggest surprise, one that both probably proved as a catalyst for this new documentary, “To Be Takei,” and yet sorely puzzled the director Jennifer M. Kroot.

“To Be Takei” opens this weekend in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset Cinema and the Laemmle Playhouse 7.

Originally, Takei had hoped the documentary would end with the triumphant opening on Broadway of the musical that started it all: “Allegiance.”  The musical, which had its world premiere in San Diego,  is about a World War II veteran named Sam Kimura (Takei) who remembers in flash backs how the Japanese American internment took his family away from their California farm to prison camp Heart Mountain in Wyoming and differing opinions tore the family apart.

Takei has been outspoken about his experiences as a young child, born in Los Angeles, but taken first to Santa Anita Racetrack to live in horse stalls to Arkansas where his family was placed in one of two so-called relocation camps. Due to his family’s decision to be no-no boys, the family was transferred to the higher security camp at Tule Lake in California.

The no-no issue is at the heart of the musical. The term refers to the Application for Leave Clearance form where there were two loyalty questions (27 and 28).

  • “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?”
  • “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?”

There were problems with both questions. By answering “yes” to the first, was one enlisting in the U.S. military? To answer “no” to the second, was one admitting to having sworn allegiance previously to Japan? And then the greater question that the form didn’t answer was: What kind of treatment could either side expect when they had already been taken from their homes and transferred to different towns without really knowing their fate? What kind of justice could they expect in 1940s yellow perilism North America?

Kroot must have had ideas of how to start the documentary yet because the ending has changed, that perhaps changed as well. The musical is also very much part of this documentary, but instead of a steady drive toward a Broadway opening, the documentary becomes more centered on George Takei and his everyday life with his husband, Brad.

The big social issue now is same-sex marriage and can you imagine a world where two men, who had spent decades together as a couple can take their daily walk, have their meal together and face the world together without anyone blinking or spewing hate? Kroot begins the documentary following Takei and Brad on their daily walk. At 77, Takei no longer trains to run a marathon, but that’s how Brad and George actually met.

George Takei came out in 2005 and married Brad Altman in 2008.  At the time of their marriage, they had already been together for 21 years. As one would expect of any old married couple, they have figured out their roles and they know how to push each other’s buttons. There’s a bit of wheedling and some moments when Brad looks a bit uncomfortable, but that makes this documentary feel honest.

Kroot shows George meeting fans and, above all else, speaking out about the Japanese American internment and same-sex marriage. We see old family photos and, of course, the series that made George Takei famous: “Star Trek.”

George’s close friends, from the series Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig, appear in clips from the past and recent interviews as does Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. The infamous missing wedding invitation is also addressed.

Yet George Takei was much more than “Star Trek.” He ran for a political office, helped in the mayoral campaign for Tom Bradley and he served on a transportation board before commitments to the Star Trek movie series took him away. Besides Star Trek, he was also in other movies and a frequent guest on the Howard Stern show where he at first denied rumors that he was gay. Kroot deals with the before and after, getting comments from both George Takei and Stern.

We also learn how happenstance led to the creation of “Allegiance” and follow George to the production in San Diego and the stalled waiting for its opening in New York.

Attempting to use his leverage as a Star Trek celebrity to promote “Allegiance,” made George a Facebook sensation and in many ways rejuvenated his career. Funny things happen when you keep active and stay committed to activism and “To Be Takei” is all about those funny things and how George Takei and his husband Brad have been able to turn adversity into a meaningful life–even when those issues may only be important to small pocket minorities. Takei does it without anger or bitterness, but with grace, good manners and a sense of humor.

At 77, Takei is even more famous than he was at the end of the three season run of the original TV series of “Star Trek.”  In that respect, “To Be Takei” shows that life can have surprising possibilities at any age if you have the drive and the commitment and the willingness to take risks.

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