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Diversity lotto #7: why Asian-American musical "Allegiance" matters

Mar. 27, 2018
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I am not much of a reviewer. I don’t even leave reviews on Yelp. But I thought I would switch out this old habit of mine and try to review something much more complex than an appetizer: the heartwarming musical Allegiance.

I live in LA, and though we aren’t quite known for musicals or plays (damn it, Hollywood!), I have had the opportunity to truly broaden my interest in theater. Having served as an assistant director in my high school for three years, I’ve always loved live performances. There is something so beautiful about how alive the theater can be, while in its impermanence, there is tragedy. I haven’t had the opportunity to go see a live show since I graduated high school, and by some stroke of luck, I managed to snatch tickets to Hamilton at the Pantages in LA. Needless to say, it was a beautiful and unforgettable experience. And once again the magical leprechaun of theater tickets blessed me, and I managed to get tickets to Allegiance through my school. 

Allegiance, premiered in San Diego in 2012 and on Broadway in 2015, was the very first Asian-American musical to open on Broadway. It has been touring statewide and has been performing in Aratani Theater in Little Tokyo, LA since February. George Takei, the legendary actor from Star Trek, is the star, and the musical is loosely based on his own experience at a Japanese internment camps. 

After the Pearl Harbor bombing, Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes into concentration camps, leaving their entire lives behind. Allegiance follows the story of the Kimura family in a small farm in California, as they’re forced to sell their house, business, and livelihood for $2,000 to whom they believed to be a close family friend as they relocate to Heart Mountain in Wyoming. As the Kimura family adjusts to their newly imprisoned lives, there is still an underlying resonance of hope, and the beautiful song “Gaman” (which translates to “Carry On” in English) serves as a constant motif of that resilience. George Takei as the Ojiichan, or the grandfather, is lovable in every way most grandparents are: he is bluntly funny and unabashedly loving and caring towards his family. The siblings, older sister Kei Kimura (played by Elena Wang) and her younger brother Sam Kimura (Ethan Le Phong), all have aspirations of their own that are hindered by their situations. Kei wants to have a life of her own, since she’s had to take on the maternal role in the family due to her mother’s death. Sam wants to be the true American hero by enlisting, though his family objects. 

There are bitingly caustic scenes, all of which confront the racist Asian stereotypes in the historical context of the ‘40s. Since this was directed by Asian Americans and played by Asian Americans (everyone but two actors were of Asian descent) with an undoubtedly Asian perspective, it doesn’t shy away from portraying reality. There is a scene when a nurse at a camp uses the phrase “cold feet” in questioning Sam’s inability to enlist and he, without missing a beat, replies “yellow feet.” There are also adorable love stories that blossom in this hell of a camp. The show’s delicate, romantic songs, besides being absolutely heartwarming, remind everyone in the audience of the Japanese Americans’ resilience and hope despite their situation. However, the musical also has tragic moments, and though I won’t spoil it, the last ten minutes brought everyone to tears, myself included.

After watching it, I couldn’t get Allegiance out of my head. Japanese internment camps are one of the many ugly stains in American history, and they particularly seem to be glossed over. These historical instances challenge the very foundation of America: the notion of freedom and democracy. Locking innocent Americans in camps and completely robbing them of their livelihood doesn’t match the idealistic picture of the land of the free. 

Allegiance derives its title from the dichotomy between allegiance towards one’s country and one’s family, which serves as another motif—and one that the audience can’t reconcile. Why can’t they have both? And I suppose that is the right question—and the right anger we are meant to feel—but it still stayed with me long after the curtain closed. As long as I have been with Adolescent, I’ve always had one singular goal in mind: I, as an Asian American, want to tell Asian-American stories that have been morphed, misrepresented, and mistreated by the larger media. And to see that on a much bigger scale than these articles I write—literally coming into life by the magic of theater—was a beautiful experience. We can’t change history; however, telling these uncomfortable stories is one small step towards healing the wrongs that can’t ever be completely cured. And I think the least that we can do is to listen to these stories.

If you are in the LA area, Allegiance closes on April 1st, so GRAB YOUR TICKETS NOW! Whether you like it or don’t, this play will undoubtedly make you think, reflect, and feel something.