I first learned about the internment of Japanese-American citizens in fourth grade. I read and wrote a book report on Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir, Farewell to Manzanar (written with her husband, James D. Houston). I don’t remember why I chose this book from the list of thirty or so provided to my class, but I do remember it was not available at the school or the local library. My father borrowed it from the library of the nearby university he taught at. It was this benign connection to an institute of higher learning that convinced me the story was true. Because we’d studied World War II in Social Studies. We’d covered the bombing of Pearl Harbor and D-Day, and I remember learning about the Holocaust as early as first grade. But no one had ever mentioned this. My US History textbook didn’t mention this.
In fact, throughout elementary, middle, and high school, the only times the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was brought up in my history classes were when I brought it up. After fourth grade, I wrote about and presented on Farewell to Manzanar twice more, in eighth grade American Studies and eleventh grade U.S. History. I wanted to talk about how wrong it was that it happened and how wrong it was we never talked about it. But I also related to Jeanne, to her sense of confusion and loss, and her desires to fit it and stand out at the same time. Despite our wildly different childhoods, despite everything she and her family went through, we shared those markers of girlhood. And I wanted to talk about it.
Flash forward twenty years and these events have made it into my daughter’s textbook. But they are not a focus, and collectively as a country, we still don’t talk about it. Meanwhile, in the seemingly endless presidential election of 2016 we have a candidate suggesting one set of immigrants are sexual predators and another set are terrorists. Suggesting we block people from the country based solely on their religion. Suggesting that people who look like him are what make America great and people who look different are dangerous. These are the suggestions that led to the internment of Japanese-, German-, and Italian-American citizens and Native Alaskans during World War II. So we have to talk about it.
The recent Broadway musical Allegiance, inspired by Star Trek actor George Takei’s personal experiences growing up in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, is coming to movie theaters across the country on December 13, 2016. Watching the show with your family is a wonderful way to start the conversation.
I saw Allegiance for my birthday last year. My friend got amazing seats, fourth row center, and though I hesitate to use the word in the context of such a sad moment in history, I thoroughly enjoyed the story of one family’s varied ways of dealing with being forced out of their home and held in a barrack surrounded by a fence and armed guards for the duration of the war. My favorite moment is “Higher,” protagonist Kei Kimura’s (Lea Salonga) big solo at the end of act one. I’ve long admired Salonga, and as an older sister to younger brothers, I strongly related to the song. I cried at the finale.
But it was the audience that surrounded us who really made an impact. Behind us were a couple older women I decided were theater subscribers because they didn’t seem to have much interest in this show in particular. Moreover, they didn’t understand why anyone else might. They couldn’t personally connect to the subject matter and decided that meant it wouldn’t make a good story.
But directly in front of us was a family. A handful of adults, two or three children, and an elderly woman, all of Japanese descent. I overheard a man introduce himself to the old woman, he was a producer of the show and wanted to welcome her and her family and thank them for sharing the afternoon. This woman had lived in an American concentration camp during World War II. Allegiance was a variation on her personal history and she had come, with her children and grandchildren, because it was finally being told. If the women behind me had looked past their own noses they would have seen her, too, and they would have seen me, full of white privilege, but relating to Kei Kimura as much as I did to Jeanne Wakatsuki in fourth grade.
Allegiance is not the best musical I’ve ever seen on Broadway, but it might be the most important. The internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II is a part of American history and we need to talk about it.
Allegiance stars George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Telly Leung. Tickets for the one-day theatrical presentation are on sale now. I’m taking my daughters, and I hope you join me.