George Takei proudly puts his name to this moving musical about the forced internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII isn’t an easy watch but it puts the heart and soul into a period of history rarely spoken about.
Takei’s presence in London, in any other production, would no doubt be seen as stunt casting but his role as America’s campy elder statesman hides a complex history with his nation. As a child, Takei and his family were part of 120,000 Japanese-Americans detained in camps following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. They weren’t released until 1944.
The book by Marc Acito, Lorenzo Thione, and Jay Kuo (who also wrote the music and lyrics) looks at a forgotten group in US military history; the segregated Japanese-American 442 Infantry Regiment and the role Mike Masaoka played in representing Japanese-American civil liberties and the fight the community had to be recognised as loyal and American.
The show opens with Takei playing the older Sam, who finds out his estranged sister Kei has died. We then head back to 1941 to find out what lead to this falling out.
Allegiance follows Sammy (Tony Leung) and Kei Mimura (Aynrand Ferrer), first-generation Americans who live happily in San Francisco amongst a diverse community. Sammy is at a crossroads, as the sole son, he is expected to become a lawyer but is not really academically minded unlike his older sister Kei who raised him following the death of their mother in childbirth. Their father and grandfather (Masashi Fujimoto and George Takei) played their father and grandfather, juggling their tradition with their American-raised younger generation.
This dynamic is disturbed by the events of 7 December 1941, a brutal attack that not only sees the US enter WWII but also turns against its citizens. It is debatable whether the US ever had a good relationship with its Japanese immigrants, who arrived in the late nineteenth century but detaining them in dusty and filthy conditions, which lead to illness and death, puts a nail in the coffin of that relationship.
The book and music look primarily at intersectionality. Sammy is American, he knows nothing else and wants to fight for his country. His country says he looks like the enemy. In the camp, there is a battle for resistance (why fight for a country that has treated you with contempt) against the Patriots. Even Sammy’s father refuses to commit to this adopted country.
As a musical I found the songs pretty average, a couple of days on I don’t really remember any of them but there are some nice set pieces such as Resist, which opens act II, and the romances between Frankie and Kei and Sammy and Hannah provide some nice moments like I Oughta Go and This is Not Over.
As a historical piece, it is fascinating. The story of 442 regiment isn’t a positive one, as they were used as a suicide unit to save their white comrades and it echoes many of the more well-known stories of African-American regiments.
Tony Leung is an incredible performer and this would be a very different production without his charisma and talent. At a time when the British East Asian community continues to find themselves underrepresented in theatre and musicals, it was great to see a production embrace the array of talent the UK has. I expect this has a strong future in London and is well worth seeing.
Allegiance is on until 8 April 2023 https://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/