What to look for on opening night of “Allegiance”

actor
“Mike Masaoka” is made a character in a musical, as played by singer/actor Paolo Montalban. (Photo by Henry DiRocco)

Japanese Americans who’ve questioned just how the new musical Allegiance will portray the Japanese American experience will find out this Wednesday, Sept. 19, when the production is opened to the press.

Yes, the show will bring the story of the camps to a wider audience, and for many that alone appears to be  enough. Others will be watching to see where the evolving script finally lands in regard to its treatment of the Heart Mountain draft resisters, the soldiers of the 442, and the wartime Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Among the things to watch for:

How will wartime JACL leader Mike Masaoka be portrayed?

No question it is remarkable to see the dark underside of loyalty, the community’s dirty laundry that was documented in Conscience and other works, brought into popular culture with this staging. However, even community members who recognize the failings of the wartime JACL and who were invited to workshop presentations of this show over the last two years reported their shock and dismay not only at seeing Mike Masaoka on stage, by name, but at seeing him caricatured as “sleazy,” a “scheming villain,” and the target of “character assassination.” Early versions of the plot unbelievably hinged on the opening of a safe in search of JACL records that would purportedly expose “Masaoka’s” plan for Nisei boys to die in combat, and thereby provide the proof needed to stop the drafting of Nisei from camp.

"Better Americans" production number
Springtime for Hitler? Masaoka and the wartime JACL get the all-singing, all-dancing treatment in the big production number, “Better Americans.” (Photo by Henry DiRocco)

Preview audiences have since reported that in the rewritten show the “Masaoka” character is less “sleazy,”in uniform for much of the show, and in one scene grieves for the death of his brother in combat. That didn’t stop the Japanese American Veterans Association from denouncing the production last week in an open letter. More rewrites are said to be taking place right up to the opening curtain on Wednesday. National JACL officials will reportedly be in the opening night audience.

How many sources can you identify?

Besides the obvious influence of Conscience on the framing of the story of Mike Masaoka and the JACL vs. the resisters, another source of inspiration lies in the screenplay for the 1976 NBC-TV movie, Farewell to Manzanar. Not the book by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston,  but the screenplay by the Houston’s and director John Korty.

(Allegiance synopsis) “Sammy … finds friendship and companionship with a quaker nurse in camp, Hannah … Sammy tries to bring the camp together with a talent show and social, but the night is hijacked by Frankie, who uses the occasion to stir opposition to their incarceration. Sammy leaves the dance angry at his sister’s apparent co-option, and he is is beaten up by men who see him as Masaoka’s stooge.”

“Frankie” in the play is Frank Emi, leader of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee. Frank Emi never disrupted any events, and would have stopped anyone who tried. Where we have seen this scenario before is in the screenplay for Manzanar which invented three elements not in Jeanne’s book: a camp talent show that is disrupted by a fistfight over the loyalty oath, a mess hall meeting that is hijacked by torch-bearing agitators who use the occasion to stir opposition to their incarceration, and a wholly-invented romance between Jeanne’s Nisei brother and a white nurse in camp. Both the book and the screenplay shared a fourth element: the beating of a JACL leader inside camp — in the book it was the real Fred Tayama of Los Angeles, in the screenplay it was the fictional Frank Nishi. Nishi, incidentally, was played 36 years ago by a younger me.

The fantasy of a romance between a Nisei man and a white woman that starts in camp is evidently irresistible, with variations on the theme played out later in Come See The Paradise and Snow Falling on Cedars. As Roger Daniels points out to me, while interracial couples did exist in camp — Karl and Elaine Black Yoneda, Arthur and Estelle Ishigo — these were couples that had married before the war and went to camp together.

The resisters’ story is used, but how is it used?

The printed song list for the first preview includes an Act Two opening number titled “Resist.” Early drafts of the script have “Frankie,” the leader of the resistance, exhorting a group of young people beneath a banner that cries, “Resist.”  Shades of Les Miserables. As we noted last week, the draft resisters at Heart Mountain never rallied others in support or raised banners, and to show them rabble-rousing is a profound disservice to their memory. If this staging is retained on opening night, the musical will further cement the confusion between the resisters and the segregants and renunciants at Tule Lake, whose actions held their own integrity but which were simply different from the Heart Mountain group.

(Allegiance synopsis) “Kei and Frankie lead the resistance to the draft at Heart Mountain … even while Hannah seeks to protect and hide Frankie and Kei from the authorities in camp …. Kei and Frankie are finally caught and arrested.”

The Fair Play Committee did not have to hide from the Nazi’s. This was not The Dairy of Anne Frank. Frank Emi and the others conducted their business openly and in public. They posted fliers, held meetings, and collected dues. When the first group of 63 resisters were arrested for draft evasion, the FBI simply looked up their barrack number in the camp registry and knocked on their doors, at dawn. When the first group was convicted, the FBI came back for the leaders on a conspiracy charge. Guntaro Kubora had his bags packed and was waiting for them. In our DVD, Frank Emi tells how the FBI came to his door and read him the charges, and how he even challenged their right to search his barrack without a search warrant.

Old Globe Playbill coverNone of these questions is likely to be asked by the first-night reviewers from Variety, Broadway World, or the San Diego Union-Tribune, but they should be. One writer who at least mentions the Masaoka controversy is Karen Wada in a feature in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times: “Some who viewed earlier versions were upset with certain aspects, including the depiction of Mike Masaoka.”

Musicals are escapist by nature and attention will focus on the interpersonal melodrama, music, and performances, with much said about the educational intentions of the book and the legitimacy conferred by the participation of Tule Lake survivor George Takei. On a personal level, our congratulations go to George for realizing his dream of a legacy project to spread the word about the camps. As mentioned in the Times and  his interview in the  Old Globe’s Playbill program, George’s father was a “no-no” segregant. As one preview audience member wondered aloud:

“George’s lines at the end are ‘You betrayed us. You betrayed your brother. These were my brothers that died.’  Who knows — he may be the driver of the anti-Masaoka themes, wanting people to understand his family’s side of the story.  He may somehow see his family as victims of Mike Masaoka.”

2 thoughts on “What to look for on opening night of “Allegiance””

  1. It is unfortnate that “Allegiance, the Musical” doesn’t even come close to telling the story of the unjust incarceration of 120,000 innocent persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and your comments here reflect our disappointment. I recently viewed your DVDs on Conscience and the Constitution and your fairness and accuracy of what happened shines through. Thank you … from a “yes, yes” family.

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