ALLEGIANCE fabrications just part of larger problem, critics say

Part Three of a continuing conversation. See Parts One and Two.

Guardian headline

Fabrication of the story of the Heart Mountain resisters is not high on the list of problems identified by critics of the musical Allegiance — although the most important of them did single out issues raised by our first critique and linked to this blog. No, foremost among their complaints is the other failing we pointed out: the derivative book, lacking  in authentic sensibility, devoid of artistic merit, and wrapped around bombastic songs stuffed with platitudinous lyrics and generic melodies. The mostly tepid reviews could depress the show’s box office and dampen the length of its run on Broadway.

review blurbsYou won’t see blurbs from these reviews touted in any Facebook ads. So here is a highly selective look at the bad reviews that back up our take on the show. As rated by the trade journal Broadway World, they add up to a cumulative reception of just 6.8 on a scale of 10.

The most-watched reaction on Broadway remains the review in the New York Times. Critic Charles Isherwood asked for a copy of our DVD, and recognized there is a real story lurking here:NY Times review

As we said before, the problem with Alleigiance is not one of inexactness but the fundamental fabrication of events that were impossible to occur in the real world and which cheapen the integrity of the Heart Mountain resistance. Nevertheless, it’s enough that the point is raised in the newspaper of record, leading more than a thousand curious readers to follow the link and discover this blog.

Jonathan Mandell at DC Theater Scene wrote at greater length to alert readers to these fabrications: “Abe accuses Allegiance of being riddled with historical inaccuracies. His major objection is to what he considers the exaggerated harshness, with the conditions at Heart Mountain presented in the musical closer to Stalag 17, he says, than historical reality … While there were armed guards manning watchtowers, no weapons were permitted inside the camp itself, a fact that renders the most dramatic scenes in the musical ‘preposterous.’ … Most theatergoers would probably dismiss Abe’s concerns as the quibbles of a passionate historian.”

But Mandrell has written elsewhere about the tension between “History vs. Theatre,” and he applies his test to this show: “The problem of authenticity pops up in a different way. Allegiance too often feels as if the creative team were working from a Broadway musical checklist: Here’s your romance, your soaring Broadway ballad, your lively dance number, your comic relief, your Les Miz grimness, your climactic moment of violence. The foreground plot involving Sammy’s relationship with Hannah the white nurse in the camp (Katie Rose Clark), and his complicated relationship with his sister and with her love interest Frankie, is not just unlikely; it sucks up far more attention than it deserves. It doesn’t seem an honest reflection of an egregious moment in history created by fear and bigotry. Rather, it feels imposed by producers motivated by a different fear – that they can’t otherwise bring in a Broadway audience.”

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Most reviews give  Allegiance credit just for showing up, with a weighty subject usually euphemistically described as “a dark chapter in American history.” Many then go on to pan the book, lyrics, and music. Two trade journals, Playbill and Broadway World, have posted summary pages with links to all the reviews:amNY headline

amNewYork, Matt Windman: “George Takei musical sunk by score, plot, staging” —  
It’s so depressing when a new musical that explores an important historical event turns out to have so many problems … The musical gets derailed by Jay Kuo’s weak score (full of derivative music and pedestrian lyrics) … considering the show’s problems, it is unlikely to find a wide audience.”

Associated Press headline

Associated Press, Mark Kennedy: “Musical ‘Allegiance’ is heavy-handed missed chance” — The heavy-handed, cliche-driven ‘Allegiance’ … a bombastic and generic Broadway musical. .. an old-fashioned, stereotypical style that’s out of touch with where Broadway is going … Each song in the musical seems to swell into a full-throated anthem, growing more swollen with every note, shooting up to the ceiling and then curling back onto themselves. The songs are simply trying too hard. The thick lyrics also spoon-feed the story as if we couldn’t already see what was happening. (“I thought I’d face the enemy/But I fell in love instead,” sings a nurse who already has told us why she enlisted and we have seen fall in love.) Here’s a typical overwrought line: “My blood to offer/So others might live” …So much subtlety is lost in the paper-thin characters and reliance on formula … This team couldn’t quite nail it. With such an important subject on the line, and blessed with a talented, hard-working cast, the creators of “Allegiance” missed a ground-breaking opportunity.”

Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout: “Land of the Unfree” — “Allegiance” … is of no artistic value whatsoever, save as an object lesson in how to write a really bad Broadway musical … peopled with characters made of solid cardboard. The Japanese-Americans are all noble and true, the Caucasians yawping apes save for a bosomy blonde nurse from Nebraska who—stop press—falls for an internee: “When I stepped into this prison / Who knew what lay ahead? / I thought I’d face the enemy / But I fell in love instead.” Jay Kuo’s songs sound like they were written with a Banal Broadway Ballad App … The show itself is a dud—and a missed opportunity.”

Guardian headlineThe Guardian (UK), Alexis Soloski: “George Takei can’t save Broadway’s mediocre pledge” — “Story on stage fails to deliver distinctive and rich performances …  striving so hard for stirring nobility that individuality or particular characterization falls by the wayside. The ballads are all sufficiently ballad-y, but none of the melodies linger once the curtain has fallen and the lyrics pile on platitude and cliché.”

Variety, Marilyn Stasio: “Authentic moments are few and fleeting, overwhelmed by standard love songs and musical soliloquies about personal feelings. In their sincere efforts to “humanize” their complex historical material, the creatives have oversimplified and reduced it to generic themes … Complicated political issues are restricted to surface elements. (Conditions at the real Heart Mountain Camp were more interesting than the death-camp environment pictured here.)”

Circling back to Charles Isherwood in the New York Times“Much of the score of Allegiance has a similar feel, as if Mr. Kuo has long kept ‘Les MIsérables’ and ‘Miss Saigon” on permanent rotation on his iPod.”

New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz: “Kuo’s score careens from grand pop opera anthems to earnest but trivial self-help filler songs with titles like ‘Resist,’ ‘Higher’ and ‘Our Time Now.'”

Time Out New York two starsTime Out New York, David Cote: “… Crumples things badly … (Salonga’s) glorious singing is so much better than the generic, clunkily worded ballads and anthems Jay Kuo has produced … There’s a complex tale of honor, shame and assimilation here, but it’s been stretched out to cartoonish billboard size.”

The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney: “An important story that hasn’t found its ideal form as a musical … The powerful sentiments involved are too often flattened by the pedestrian lyrics and unmemorable melodies of Jay Kuo’s score, making an unconvincing case for this material’s suitability to be a musical  … The broad-strokes storytelling of a musical (or this one, at least) seems ill-suited to examining such complex issues, and the book’s superficial character development doesn’t help either. Maybe masters of the dark like Kander & Ebb might have been able to do this story justice in song, but Kuo and his co-writers are not up to the task, sacrificing the specifics in their bland focus on universal themes of love, family and redemption.”

Even the cheerleading trade journal Broadway World could not overlook the obvious, via Michael Dale: “Lacks a score that meets the emotional demands of its subject. While audience members may certainly be moved to tears to see such a tragic episode in American history depicted before them, Kuo’s didactic, perfunctory lyrics and bland music are dramatically uninspired. … The score of Allegiance never offers the story the unique emotional textures that can make musical theatre so gratifying. This is a great topic for a musical and the talented company plays it admirably, but Allegiance, while certainly not a bad theatre piece, is an underachieving one.”

We’ll give the last word to one of our readers: “My wife’s grandfather was in the 442 and from Hawaii. We went to the play a couple weeks ago and she was crushed at the 442 portrayal, especially the dance number following the A-Bomb. Her comment was it was the story of war and internment as written by a college student sifting through Wikipedia. It was disappointing and I am grateful for your fact-checking.”

Broadway is a business, and the weekly grosses as reported by Broadway World are the key to watch. The numbers show that since the first week of box office chartpreviews, the average number of seats sold for Allegiance has dropped off 40 percent, an average of 3,000 fewer tickets sold per week. With aggressive discounting, weekly grosses are off by 44 percent to fall below $350,000. The show’s fate will depend on where those grosses stand in relation to the size of the show’s “nut,” or the amount of money it must take in every week to pay the cast, crew, and theater rental.

The sagging ticket sales suggest that if you simply must see this show live in New York, you should not wait past the holidays into the cold and snow of January, when business drops off across the board and many shows announce a closing date. As the New York Post brutally put it, “The vultures are circling: Word on the street is that ‘Prince of Broadway,’ the Hal Prince musical, is eyeing the theater for the spring.”

Now appearing nightly: Mike Masaoka!

Part Two of a continuing conversation. Part One is here.

The problem with the new Broadway musical Allegiance is not just its historical inaccuracies, although it is riddled with them. It’s the fabrication of events that were impossible within the reality of America’s concentration camps. Unexpectedly, the one reality this show gets right is its portrayal of Mike Masaoka and the wartime Japanese American Citizens League — although making him the villain of the piece diverts attention from other, more uncomfortable truths.

Paolo Montalban as Mike Masaoka at Old Globe Theater, Sept. 2012 - photo: xxx
Singer/actor Paolo Montalban as Mike Masaoka at Old Globe Theater, Sept. 2012 (Photo by Henry DiRocco)

Some background: In its tryout at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 2012, audiences reported their dismay at seeing Masaoka burlesqued as “sleazy” and a “scheming villain” who plotted for Nisei boys to die in suicide battalions as a means of proving Japanese American loyalty. This first-draft “Masaoka” joined in on an all-singing, all-dancing production number (“Better Americans in a Greater America”) that parodied his accommodationist stand with such lyrics as “It’s not too late / Come celebrate / America and assimilate!” The show climaxed with the Nisei vet Sammy, played by George Takei, in full dress uniform screaming at the spirit memory of Masaoka, “You had me lead them to their deaths, you son of a bitch!”

"Better Americans" production number
The “Better Americans” production number parodying the JACL slogan was cut after the San Diego tryout. Photo by Henry DiRocco.

This caricature was criticized by JACL and denounced by veterans’ groups for a) presenting Mike as a cartoon figure, b) using his real name while other historical figures like the Heart Mountain resisters he opposed were fictionalized, and c) appearing to brand every member of the 442 as “as fools and dupes,” as Variety called it, “though the scribes don’t even seem to realize the thematic impact of their clumsy 11th hour reveal.” The Japanese American Veterans Association warned that without fundamental change, the play was a Titanic “doomed to hit an iceberg of facts and history.” At the National JACL convention this summer in Las Vegas, former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta — Mr. Masaoka’s brother-in-law — said that while he and Mr. Takei share much in common, on this portrayal of Masaoka, George was “dead wrong.” And on Oct. 7 National JACL issued a new statement that weakly reflected institutional denial and a continued inability to renounce the legacy of Mike Masaoka.

Greg Watanabe taking his first curtain call as "Mike Masaoka" – photo:
Actor Greg Watanabe taking his first curtain call as “Mike Masaoka” (Photo by

For all its fabrications that violate historical reality, the final Broadway iteration of Allegiance addresses the Masaoka problem by playing him straight, with no singing or dancing. It’s the one thing the show gets right, by drawing from the record of Masaoka’s words and deeds: the initial suggestion of a suicide battalion, the advocacy for a segregated unit that could win white acceptance, the weeding out of the bad apples through segregation at Tule Lake.

Actor Greg Watanabe captures Masaoka’s earnest surrender of civil rights with a seriousness of purpose and flashes of stubborn defiance. Watanabe did his homework, reading up on the story and studying the Masaoka interview and video on our Two-Disc DVD. It shows in his performance; a non-singer, his portrayal is respectful, not a caricature or cartoon.

Act II now opens with a scene lifted straight from Conscience: a helmeted Mike Masaoka typing press releases in the European combat zone to drum up good publicity for the 442. In a poignant moment, the death of Mike’s brother in battle is represented as a dream in which the fallen Ben hands his dog tags to a stunned Mike. The moment is marred by the jarring musical intrusion of a Japanese koto, the wrong note for a character who called for eradication of expressions of Japanese language and culture in the camps.

By hearing Masaoka’s actual words, more or less, we begin to see the false distinctions between loyal and disloyal that the wartime government forced upon Japanese America, with help from JACL, and which we then internalized among ourselves. But unlike the brilliant interplay of American Revolutionary history and ideas presented a few blocks away in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s astonishingly detailed Hamilton, Allegiance cops out in favor of safer melodrama. What finally drives the Nisei soldier Sammy to renounce his sister, his newborn niece, and the resister Frankie is (spoiler alert) the phony, impossible shooting of his white girlfriend in camp: “You were supposed to protect her!” The once-indivisible family is broken not by matters of principle and deep conviction, but over a personal beef arising from an absurd plot contrivance.

By using Mike’s real name, Allegiance establishes the terms by which it invites itself to be measured. So why use his name, despite community complaints and formal objections? One reason may be that in a city with the living memory of the Twin Towers attack of 9/11 and threats to round up and remove all persons of Iranian descent, making a Japanese American the villain of the piece avoids grim realities in order and helps secure the feel-good nature of the evening.

Make no mistake, the real Mike Masaoka bears plenty of responsibility for waiving Japanese American rights at the height of war and racial hysteria, and for acting as a confidential informant for the FBI. But setting him up as the villain has the emotional effect, intended or not, of letting the government off the hook. It’s as if to say, “Look at Mike, he was the culprit,” not the general who lied about military necessity, the major who was the architect of mass eviction and incarceration, the President who signed the order, or the machinery of government that carried out the order.

The Japanese American veterans saw this in 2012, when they accused the makers of “misdirecting the blame away from government officials responsible for falsely imprisoning innocent persons.” The Los Angeles Times astutely noted in 2012, “Allegiance retreats from the challenge of its own material,” and that’s still true today. The show acknowledges race and economic greed, but does not confront the failure of political leadership that enabled mass incarceration, or the public’s acceptance of it, lest audiences squirm in their seats or just stay home.

The story elements of Allegiance that lie outside Mr. Takei’s personal experience play like a Googled version of Japanese American history that rifles through the canon – the invention of the sympathetic white girlfriend and nurse from John Korty’s TV version of Farewell to Manzanar, the baseball-in-camp setting of Ken Mochizuki’s Baseball Saved Us, the resisters from our film.

T-shirtAn inventive score might have redeemed this mashup, but the songs of Allegiance are themselves a pastiche of relentless optimism that admits to no darkness. The Nisei in this camp make their “Wishes on the Wind” and aspire to go “Higher,” because their native “Gaman” makes them “Stronger Than Before.” The trite lyrics and forgettable melodies derive from the show tunes of Sondheim or Kander and Ebb, but without their wit, edge, or skill in advancing character and story. Generic in tone, the songs could be lifted from any similar show, rather than springing from a specific Japanese American impulse – such as the anger and suppressed rage that we know the Nisei carried with them from camp, and which some finally expressed during redress. The only Nisei anger in this show, in fact, is reserved for last, for the family breakup over the killing of the white girlfriend.

The desire to have the camp story told is so strong, countless people are willing to overlook fabrications of history and a ludicrous portrayal of the Heart Mountain resisters. I am not. The impact and message of Allegiance is at heart a plea for white acceptance, a posture so familiar to Japanese Americans, so ingrained in our DNA by a history of incarceration and a 70-year narrative of allegiance-pledging, we often fail to recognize it.

ALLEGIANCE uplifts by doctoring Japanese American history

Thanks for finding this post via links from Wikipedia, the New York Times and other reviews. See the real story of the Heart Mountain resisters as told in our PBS film, Conscience and the Constitution. Order here.

SPOILER ALERT: This theater preview reveals an absurd central plot point.Curtain call on Oct. 6

The implied pact the musical Allegiance makes with its audience is that you will see an honest retelling of the Japanese American incarceration, and come away feeling comfortably uplifted. The show does entertain, through derivative songs and animated production. It achieves its effect, however, by sacrificing truth for theatricality, revising history, and offering a ludicrous portrayal of the Heart Mountain resisters.

As producer/director of the 2000 PBS film, Conscience and the Constitution – which first framed the conflict between the organized resistance led by Frank Emi, and suppression of that resistance by the Japanese American Citizens League, led by Mike Masaoka – I’ve been asked how the musical performs as history.

After seeing the first public preview October 6 at New York’s Longacre Theater, it is apparent the makers of Allegiance found the fact of civilian administration of America’s concentration camps so ordinary and banal – which it was – that they needed to heighten the obstacles to their themes of love and hope by conflating Heart Mountain with the worst of the segregation center at Tule Lake, near the California-Oregon border. They invent military rule at Heart Mountain. 

Allegiance is billed as a fiction “inspired by the true-life experience of its star George Takei,” who was imprisoned as a child at Rohwer and Tule Lake. But the only events validated by his personal experience are those of every camp story – fictional family at home, Pearl Harbor, selling the farm cheap, dust and dances in camp, yes-yes/no-no, and war’s end. Once that family, here called the Kimura’s, is evicted from home and reaches the War Relocation Authority center in Wyoming, the makers of Allegiance selectively and progressively alter the reality governing Heart Mountain to more closely suggest that of a German POW camp.

In Act I for example, upon their arrival at faux Heart Mountain, a campwide PA system broadcasts directives to evacuees, while Military Police order “women to the right, men to the left.” Hannah, a white nurse, asks the women to “please remove your clothes down to your underwear” for medical exams. When an Issei woman protests, a young man explodes, “It’s not right!” and is forcibly shoved to the ground by an MP. The PA announces a curfew at sundown. When the Kimura patriarch later angrily answers no-no on his loyalty questionnaire, MP’s march to his barrack to clap him into handcuffs and haul him away: “No touching,” they bark to his family.

Camp was degrading. It was dehumanizing. But this heavy-handed treatment inflames emotion at the expense of fact:

  • The entirety of the arrival processing is designed to foreshadow the personal, physical violence that is contrived later. Disturbingly, the staging also evokes a whiff of the ghoulish selection process of inmates at Nazi gas chambers.
  • Camp-wide loudspeakers existed in M*A*S*H, not Heart Mountain. Incarcerees only had to roll up their sleeves to receive inoculations after arrival. The curfew existed on the West Coast before eviction, not after removal to camp; where would they go?
  • The Military Police at Heart Mountain were an ominous presence, equipped with rifles and machine guns in nine guard towers. But their patrol of the towers and exterior gates ended several hundred feet outside the barbed wire fence that encircled the barracks, inside of which incarcerees policed themselves. Handcuffs were not used and were not needed on segregants put on the bus for Tule Lake, because in the high desert of Wyoming, there was nowhere to run.

Act I ends with the Kimura family son Sam, having enlisted in the Army, raising his hand to salute, while his sister’s sweetheart, Frankie Suzuki, raises his fist in defiance. “Frankie” is revealed in Act II as a stand-in for the real-life Frank Emi. But where Conscience presents the resistance for what it was – a studied act of civil disobedience, a last chance to challenge the legality of the camps by breaking a law and bringing a test case to court — Allegiance appropriates that framework and recasts the resisters as the oppressed, fists-raised revolutionaries from Les Misérables (“Resist”).

Reporters ask Sam Kimura, now a war hero, how he feels about “the draft riots at Heart Mountain” where resisters led by Frank Suzuki “are burning their draft cards.” Frankie exclaims to sweetheart Kei Kimura, “They could hang me for treason!” (“This Is Not Over”). Frankie is hunted by armed guards inside the camp perimeter. Frankie is captured and thrown into a stockade at Heart Mountain, where he is kicked and beaten bloody by MP’s. Kei rallies the women to write letters appealing to the press, which they smuggle out of camp under their skirts (“Resist” reprise). From his prison cell, Frankie reports that “With the press getting ahold of our story, there’s word of letting us out early, maybe even a pardon.” (“Nothing in Our Way”).

This melodramatic behavior makes a mockery of the true accomplishment of the resisters:

  • Draft cards were burned at Berkeley in the 1960’s for the benefit of TV cameras, not in the 1940’s and not at Heart Mountain. The only riots in camp were at Manzanar, against camp administration and the JACL, and a strike at Tule Lake which led to two-and-a-half months of martial law.
  • The resisters knew they were risking five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for bucking the draft, but violating the recently-enacted Selective Service Act was never a capital crime, never treason. And they never whined about the price of their principled stand.
  • Heart Mountain had no stockade; that was Tule Lake. No resistance leader at Heart Mountain was beaten bloody. If this scene is meant to play out in the federal penitentiary where they served their sentences, it’s more of an insult, because at Leavenworth Frank Emi earned the respect of guards and hardened convicts by staging an exhibition of the then unheard-of sport of judo.
  • America knew full well what was going on in the camps. The great majority applauded eviction, incarceration, JACL shows of patriotism, and the prosecution of so-called troublemakers. Publicity about the resisters would hardly cause the U.S. attorney or the federal judge who convicted them to wilt. As for getting publicity, Frank Emi only had to mail letters to the Wyoming newspaper to get them published; this bit of business seems contrived to give star Lea Salonga something to do. President Truman did pardon the Nisei resisters, but only after the war, and only along with all the draft resisters of WW2.
  • But more importantly, no resistance leader was hunted by guards like an inmate escaping Stalag 17. Leaders of the Fair Play Committee were quietly taken into custody at their family barracks by federal marshals who came at dawn. Guntaro Kubota even had his bags packed waiting for his arrest.

All this is an affront to Heart Mountain resister Yosh Kuromiya. He witnessed these events, and finds the stage play absurd:

There weren’t any firearms used in Heart Mountain. Our resistance was completely above-board and open. All the FPC meetings were open to the public. Even our bulletins were publicized.

The impressions given in this script are totally misleading. The whole situation wasn’t violent and it was an open forum for people to speak openly. The implications in the portrayal are an insult to the FPC and resisters. Even the rationale of artistic license becomes questionable in the critical accuracy of our personal history and that of Japanese American history.

The worst is saved for last. His bloody head now wrapped in bandages, Frankie – how I loathe that diminutive form of Frank Emi – is dragged by an MP to the infirmary. Hannah the nurse tries to treat him, but the MP punches Frankie around (!), pulls out his sidearm (!), and (SPOILER ALERT) in the scuffle shoots and kills Hannah by mistake.

Audiences gasp (except for one person, not me, who guffawed). But audience members do not realize this is no longer an historical fiction of the kind promised. This World War II exists in an alternate universe, science fiction as told by Phillip K. Dick. Four men were shot and killed in America’s wartime concentration camps, each of them a person of Japanese ancestry. No white woman was ever killed in camp, much less by another white person. None. Not ever. Such an incident would have rocked the course of American history. And in the plot’s climactic moment it is this death, not the uniquely Japanese American divide of patriot versus resister, that drives the final break between Kei and her 442 brother Sam, who blames her and Frankie for the tragedy.

This does not trouble the show’s makers, who freely acknowledge that their conception of Allegiance has as much to do with the WW2 incarceration of Japanese Americans as Miss Saigon did with the war in Vietnam. The historical events exist only as a backdrop for their themes of love and hope. It’s an improvement on the Orientalist tradition of the Broadway theater, but audiences at least knew something about the Vietnam War. Without knowing much if anything about the camps, non-Nikkei audiences must accept the action at face value, unaware that most of the events described were impossible under the reality governing the camps. In this respect, Allegiance thumbs its nose at the history it purports to impart.

Incidentally, while the show is commonly known as “George Takei’s Allegiance,” he is not a producer or writer with responsibility for the project. He is an impish presence on the stage as grandfather Kimura (and by the way, how is his character possible as the father of an Issei father?); he is a commanding presence as the grown-up Sam Kimura; and he growls out his one number in the spoken-singing style of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (“Ishi Kara Ishi”) while cleverly folding his loyalty questionnaire into the paper flower blossom seen in the show’s logo. Responsibility for historical fabrications lie with the creative team behind the book, or script. The team was lucky to have secured George’s services to front the show. Mr. Takei graciously provided a voice for our film, he’s done extraordinary work in the community, and people are made to feel that they share in his legacy project.

If the community’s interest in this show lies in the exposure and mainstreaming of the camp story, it has to look critically at what is being streamed. Art needn’t be slavishly accurate. Dramatists have leeway to condense and rearrange to arrive at an emotional truth. What we get here though is less an authentic sensibility and more the product of market research, calibrated for fame, box office, and Tony nods.

Japanese Americans who protest “it’s only a musical,” that it might lead audiences to learn more, overlook the potential consequences. Should Allegiance stand, it risks supplanting the truth of the resistance and the Japanese American experience in the popular mind. Revisionism must be rejected – whether from camp deniers like Michelle Malkin who minimalize the experience, or from shows like this that make the camps out to be harsher than they were.

The Broadway crowd will embrace and defend its own, but Japanese America did not fight – I did not fight – to set the record straight through redress and restoration of the resisters, only to have verifiable fact sacrificed for a curtain call. For years, the makers have deflected criticism of their show as a work-in-progress. That ends in two weeks, when the show opens November 8 for review by the New York press. It will be left to critics and the community to recognize the revisionism, and call bullshit where they see it. Be wary of pledging allegiance to this distortion of Japanese American history.

Next:  The portrayal of Mike Masaoka is actually one of the things this show gets right — even as it contributes to a false sense of resolution.

In memoriam: Sgt. Ben Kuroki

Ben Kuroki at Heart MountainWe’re very sorry to learn of the passing at 98 of the war hero, Sgt. Ben Kuroki, the “Boy from Nebraska.” His life merits long remembrances in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and in the Rafu Shimpo, which includes comments from his daughter Julie.

We were fortunate to be able to interview Mr. Kuroki at his home in Camarillo, California in 1998, the very last piece of new footage to go into the documentary. Ben graciously agreed to appear, despite his initial misgivings, to share how his story intersected with that of the Fair Play Committee at Heart Mountain. After the PBS broadcast he sent a nice note to say how pleased he was at his fair treatment in the film, and to invite us to visit him anytime.

In this excerpt from the outtakes in our DVD extras, Kuroki answers the criticism he endured during the war for his fervent patriotism.

To learn more about Ben’s life, we encourage you to acquire a copy of our friend Bill Kubota’s excellent 2007 PBS documentary, Most Honorable Son.

Our condolences to Ben’s widow, Shige, daughter Julie, and all his family and many friends.

HOLD THESE TRUTHS: the power of the real

Curfew violator Gordon Hirabayashi was a draft resister too. He resisted the 8 pm military curfew placed only on Japanese Americans, when he saw it didn’t apply to his white classmates at the University of Washington. He resisted the mass incarceration all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And he resisted the draft when an induction letter was sent to him after his high court conviction was upheld

actor seated in chair
Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Jeanne Sakata. Photo by Chris Bennion.

In her solo play on the lone resistance of Gordon Hirabayashi, playwright Jeanne Sakata shows that the truth of the Japanese American experience can work as powerful drama onstage, without violating the history or resorting to melodrama.

HOLD THESE TRUTHS, which is ending its longest run ever of four weeks at the ACT Theater in Seattle, uses nothing but the actual word and deed of the UW student and Quaker pacifist, based on Sakata’s hours of interviews with him. Where she compresses events or fictionalizes Gordon’s letters from jail, the words are always drawn from his actual writings, the minimum of dramatic license is taken, and the intent is always to illuminate the real nature of Gordon’s character.

Her approach succeeds brilliantly. Sakata brings Gordon’s inner life to the surface while retaining respect for the facts. She makes it look simple, but her craft is quite accomplished.

Having known Gordon through his visits to Seattle later in life, it’s odd to see him portrayed on stage by someone who bears such a striking resemblance. Ryun Yu captures something about the tilt of the head when Gordon would pursue a thought. He finds an expansive energy in the younger Gordon, while staying true to his pure convictions and measured speech. Yu holds the stage for 90 minutes, and earns a standing ovation every night.

lone actor on bare stage
Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Jeanne Sakata. Photo by Chris Bennion.

At a pivotal moment in the play, Yu as Hirabayashi trembles at the gravity of his decision to violate the military curfew, and take on the government. He realizes his will be a test case, and the line he writes in a letter, “Therefore, I must refuse this order for evacuation,” precedes by two years the nearly identical stance of the draft resisters at Heart Mountain: “Therefore, we hereby refuse to go to the induction, or to the physical examination, in order to contest the issue.” The difference was Gordon had no organized resistance around him, no model for his selfless stand. He did it alone, and the Heart Mountain resisters had his example as a guide.

Seeing the play performed in Seattle is  especially meaningful, at a theater just a few blocks from the federal courthouse where Gordon was first arraigned in 1942, and a few blocks more from the King County Jail where he served nine months. Hearing a stage voice announce the wartime exclusion order in terms of real Seattle territory – Roosevelt and N. 85th – made the history all too tangible for an audience that can visualize those streets today.

That federal courthouse was also the scene where Gordon in 1985 was given a chance to put the government on trial for withholding evidence that could have changed the outcome of his Supreme Court test case.

Being a Courageous Citizen on July 20th at the Town HallTo promote the return to Seattle of HOLD THESE TRUTHS, I was pleased to moderate a July 20 panel at Town Hall Seattle featuring Jeanne and three of the Sansei attorneys who gave their time to back Gordon and Fred Korematsu in their attempt to overturn their high court convictions in 1985.

moderator with four panelists on stage
(L to R) Frank Abe, Jeanne Sakata, Rod Kawakami, Lorrie Bannai, and Daniel Ichinaga. Photo by Monica Kong.

Rod Kawakami, Lorrie Bannai, and Daniel Ichinaga took us inside their legal strategy to refute the claim of military necessity used to justify the wartime incarceration. On the eve of the hearing, Kawakami described how the government offered Gordon a Presidential pardon in exchange for dropping the case; it was revealing of Gordon’s character that he rejected the offer, saying “We should be the ones pardoning the government.”

While preparing for the panel, I dug up an article I wrote for the Pacific Citizen in November 1985 that examined in detail the final written arguments in the “Clash of Legal Arguments in ‘Civil Liberties Case of the Century.’” It was remarkable that we could share our memories of being in the same place at the same time — Rod and Daniel representing Gordon, me covering the hearing as a reporter — and each of us feeling the weight of history being re-enacted in that courtroom.

See more pictures from the panel in this Facebook photo album. HOLD THESE TRUTHS runs through Sunday, August 16.

REVIEW: A jarring addition to new edition of “No-No Boy”

No-No Boy cover illustrationWhen the University of Washington Press republished one of its most enduring titles with a new cover and introduction, editor Alan Lau of the International Examiner’s Pacific Reader section asked me to critique the new edition, to report on whether the book still stands the test of time after nearly 60 years, and what it says to us now. What I found was a jarring and misguided addition made by the Press to John Okada’s text, in its otherwise fine new paperback edition.

Still the Great Japanese American Tragedy

No-No Boy by John Okada
the new University of Washington Press edition

reviewed by Frank Abe
special to the International Examiner, July 15-August 4, 2015

The appearance of the first new edition of John Okada’s No-No Boy in nearly 40 years offers the chance for re-evaluation of his work. As someone with a long connection with the novel, I find there’s much to like about the new edition – and one thing profoundly wrong.

After more than 100,000 copies in 13 printings, the University of Washington Press has republished this foundational work along with five others in its “Classics of Asian American Literature” series, with new covers and introductions.

First, the good. The new cover illustration reflects a lot of thought. I’ll miss the menace of the 1976 design by Bob Onodera of San Francisco, with the flags of the U.S. and Imperial Japan peering from the eyes of draft resister Ichiro Yamada’s surly face, partly because Bob based it on a photograph of myself taken the year before at the Asian American Theater Workshop. He designed the title with Army stencil font against a brown background that suggests the texture of a paper grocery bag of the kind used at Yamada grocery …

So here’s the problem with this new edition: At the end of the Preface, someone added the name “John Okada,” as if he had signed it as a statement from the author.

This attribution never existed in the original Tuttle hardcover overseen by Okada, or the CARP paperback reprint. It was not authorized by the Okada family. It interrupts the dream woven by Okada’s fiction, and violates Okada’s artistic intent. Read more …

page from newspaper

How happy ending in staged “NO-NO BOY” bowdlerizes Okada’s novel

Successfully adapting any work to the stage presents a challenge. The fact that it isn’t easy doesn’t justify violating the author’s intent.

Pan Asian Rep posterIn response to our commentary about the slapping of a happy ending on the staged version of No-No Boy that is still being pitched for a national tour by the Pan Asian Repertory Theater of New York, dramatist Ken Narasaki acknowledges in a recent Discover Nikkei blog that he couldn’t find a way to make the original ending work onstage. He also says we cannot criticize his ending without having seen the script.

John Okada’s No-No Boy is the great Japanese American tragedy. Much of its power stems from its open-ended conclusion that sends draft resister Ichiro Yamada into the darkness of postwar Japanese America, searching for answers not just for himself but for all those in his world.

The last scene of this stage adaptation reduces Okada’s epic vision to sentiment and schmaltz, so as to leave the audience with a comfortable feeling of tidy resolution, complete with callbacks to isolated lines from earlier in the novel to support an outcome never intended by Okada.

As Mr. Narasaki permits scrutiny of his adaptation only by those who have seen or read it, here then is the last scene. It is as we described it:

Lights shift:

Ichiro and Emi dance, slowly, close together.
Ichiro laughs.

EMI:  What’s so funny?

ICHIRO:  I don’t know. I was … enjoying this, you know? And then, a funny thought came into my head.

EMI:  What?

ICHIRO:  Nobody’s looking twice at us.

EMI:  They’re busy.

ICHIRO:  Yeah. I know. They’re livin’.

EMI:  You know, there’s something about this place.

ICHIRO:  There’s something here, huh? What is it?

EMI:   I don’t know.

Ma and Pa enter:

PA:  Maybe it is done. Maybe…

MA:  …you can hold your head high. Maybe…

Freddie enters.

FREDDIE :  …you can be proud of what you done. Maybe…

Taro enters.

TARO:  …because we were born here, we’re gonna have kids here.  Maybe…

Kumasaka-san enters.

KUMASAKA-SAN:  …you can finally understand. Maybe…

Kenji enters.

KENJI:  (to Ichiro)  …we’re just people. Maybe…

Mrs. Kanno enters.

MRS. KANNO:  …it doesn’t figure but that’s how it is:

Jun enters.

JUN: Ping!

ICHIRO:  …and I’m alive.

He kisses Emi.  She kisses him.

Slow fade to black.

The sight of Ichiro and Emi dancing occurs four-fifths of the way into the novel. Through the character of Emi, Okada suggests the chance for Ichiro of love and salvation. Emi is lonely and frustrated in her marriage, and takes Ichiro as a lover. Okada then frees up her marital status by having her absent husband ask for a divorce. Emi expresses a wish for Ichiro to take her dancing, and he impulsively takes her to a roadhouse south of Seattle. That’s the scene above. But here’s the rub: Okada places this second romantic interlude 40 pages and two chapters from the end of Ichiro’s journey.

Through his brilliant organization of the material, Okada states clearly his artistic intent. He refuses the idea of a happy ending for Ichiro. Emi and Ichiro go dancing, but it’s not enough to redeem the young resister. Newly released from “two years in camp and two years in prison,” Ichiro is far from ready to pursue his American dream. He needs time to sort out who he is and where he stands in the rearranged and distorted new landscape for Japanese America through which he has just passed. Love itself cannot cure all. As Ichiro might say, “the problem is bigger,” and with his ending Okada makes it clear it is something that Itchy will have to fight through for years to come.

Bringing Ma back from the dead to encourage Ichiro to “hold your head high” twists her words from their original meaning and changes her character. The line is from an early scene in which she recites from memory a letter from a fellow fanatic who relays news that Japan won the war, exhorting followers to “hold their heads high” in this delusion. Repeating it at the end as Ichiro and Emi cling to each other makes Ma appear approving or forgiving. She was neither; she killed herself because she was incapable of approval or forgiveness.

It is not a question of staging the original ending as written on the page; it’s a question of what you do to create “an entirely new solution” for ending the play on stage. The problem here is not the artistic difficulty of adaptation; it’s a problem of the artistic integrity of the result.

The hopeful, happy ending of the stage adaptation cheapens the work. It’s now mush. The power of Ichiro’s emotional journey is that he is unable or unwilling to settle for the easy answer; in this adaptation, he settles. In a 2009 essay, Mr. Narasaki acknowledges he changed Ichiro’s journey and the author’s intent, in order to coddle his audience:

“… audiences usually desire, if not require, some sense of resolution.  In this case, knowing what we know now, I think it’s possible to end this play on a note of hope, rather than despair…  How much change is sacrilege?  How much change constitutes a desecration?

“I suspect people will let us know.”

Sacrilege? Desecration? Reject this adaptation for what it is: a bowdlerizing of the work of John Okada.

The first ceremonial homecoming for the Heart Mountain resisters

Boys of Mtn View-San JoseFlashback Friday: Thanks to JK Yamamoto, former editor of the Hokubei Mainichi, for reminding us that it was on this date 23 years ago that we staged the first ceremonial homecoming for the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee.

Under the sponsorship of Prof. Wendy Ng at San Jose State University, the May 29, 1992 event was a special evening program for the national conference of the Association for Asian American Studies, held in the Studio Theater of Hugh Gillis Hall.

Boys of Mt View SJWe called it “The Boys of Mountain View – San Jose,” and what lent it the ceremonial feel was the readers’ theater script compiled by writer Frank Chin that threaded together the original writings of the resisters, the editorials in support of the resisters by Rocky Shimpo editor James Omura, and a warm narration provided by poet Lawson Inada. Omura, Frank Emi, Mits Koshiyama, Dave Kawamoto, and Gloria Kubota read their own words from the time, from the scripts in the music stands in front of them. For a bit of dramatics we staged part of the interrogation of Frank Emi by camp director Guy Robertson, with Emi’s words read by the current editor of the Nichi Bei Weekly, Kenji Taguma.

We shot the event with three cameras, thinking that cutting between them would provide the framework for a documentary about the resisters. But once we got the tape into the editing bay, we immediately saw the problem: all the readers were looking down at their scripts in the music stands, and making no contact with the audience. It just wasn’t visually compelling.

That began an eight-year journey to shoot new interviews and gather archival film and stills for what would eventually become Conscience and the Constitution. The San Jose State homecoming  was the first event we shot, and it turned out to provide the last shots in the finished film, with the applause from the audience and the recovery of their history providing an emotional lift to help cap our story.

While only a few moments from the evening survived in the final cut, you can get a feel for this first ceremonial  homecoming for the Heart Mountain resisters in the DVD outtake, “The Return of the Fair Play Committee.”

CONSCIENCE DVD part of new online teachers course

Densho Online CourseThe Densho online video archive is already a remarkable accomplishment: the filming, transcribing, archiving and posting of more than 1,600 hours of video interviews and over 12,000 historic photos, documents, and newspapers, all sharing the direct experience of incarceration in one of America’s concentration camps for Japanese Americans in World War II. The raw tapes of all 26 interviews we conducted for CONSCIENCE are archived there and available online, in what’s unavoidably dubbed the “Frank Abe Collection.”

Executive director Tom Ikeda and company have now taken their collection to the next level. After years of work they have synthesized the stories and images in their collection and organized them into a new online course, “Teaching WWII Japanese American Incarceration with Primary Sources.”

But there’s more. Among the benefits for completing the course and filling out an evaluation, teachers will receive a certification of completion to document professional development hours, and a copy of our new Two-Disc Collectors Edition DVD of CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION, documenting the largest organized resistance to the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

“The online course helps teachers create classroom activities to encourage students to closely examine and question what people say,” says Ikeda. “The men in Abe’s film questioned the government’s action to draft them from behind barbed wire, which led to their civil disobedience. We want teachers and students to see how thinking deeply about an issue can lead to action.”

Thanks to Densho for its longtime support of our project and for sharing our DVD with new teachers and students. The complete course takes about six hours to complete and it’s completely free, so sign up now.

Discovering my father was a no-no boy

chef George Heart MtnThis is the story of a rank-and-file supporter of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, one of the many never named who chipped in two hard-earned 1944 dollars to the defense fund for the young draft resisters.

His name was George Yoshisuke Abe, and yes, he was my father. Dad died in his sleep on April 1, his last laugh on all of us. He was 91.

Ht Mtn crew cropIn preparing for his service, I revisited a chronology he wrote some years ago, and was startled to discover something I’d completely overlooked: Dad was in fact a no-no boy.

This is what he wrote of the time he was handed the loyalty questionnaire in 1943.

At first I answered Yes, Yes to questions 27 and 28 but late after talk with Mr. Oda and Nisei friends I changed the answer to No, No and went to administration building to have it notarized. Before that Nisei girl officer in the office wrote explanation for reason of changing the answer in loyalty questionnaire. After notarized I hand the letter to hakujin officer in the same office. At that time I never realized the seriousness of Yes, Yes and No, No. I sure found out the consequence later.

About a month later Yes, Yes and No, No groups were separated. The Yes, Yes and the disloyal to U.S. about 1000 of them were shipped to different camp later known to be Tule Lake segregated camp in Calif. I went to see departure of Yes, Yes group [here he probably means the No-No group] because some of my friends were going. It was terrible scene to see. Loved ones and family being separated and tears were flowing everywhere. Out of segregated, some had change of heart and some were shipped to Japan.

Dad then wrote of the later JACL campaign to solicit volunteers for the Army as a demonstration of Nisei loyalty, and the reinstitution of the draft in early 1944.

Some volunteered.  Others resisted draft and taken to jail. There were talk of drinking soy sauce that made heart rate to go way up so that Army examiner will reject on ground of bad heart. Somehow the draft never came to me. I had already registered for draft before the evacuation in 1941 in County of Santa Clara draft board #111. I carried draft card with me so I wasn’t worried too much.

1948 portrait croppedIt’s regrettable the things one never thinks to ask until it’s too late. Why did he change his answer from yes-yes to no-no? Since he did register as no-no, why wasn’t he segregated to Tule Lake with the others? And since, on paper at least, he was 22 when Selective Service was reinstituted for the Nisei in 1944, why didn’t he get the call until  1947? He may not have known himself.

I can’t say that Dad’s personal wartime resistance was the reason for making CONSCIENCE AND THE CONSTITUTION, or for maintaining this blog. I’ve never drawn the direct connection. But it’s not hard to see how one’s origins shapes a person and motivates them.

He will, of course, be deeply missed. Goodbye, Dad, and thanks for everything.

PBS film on the largest organized resistance to the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans