Variety rips “Allegiance,” says what National JACL does not

Variety logoLike the Los Angeles Times before it, the trade newspaper Variety has just posted what can only be described as a thumbs-down review of the new musical inspired by the clash of ideas between the Heart Mountain draft resisters who are the subject of our film, and the wartime Japanese American Citizens League:

“(W)hile the personal material lands, the political stuff lacks nuance and weight in “Allegiance.” Despite a handsome production and talent to spare, the writing would need considerable toughening up to withstand Broadway’s harsh glare …

“The sloganeering libretto … portrays both points of view as more or less reasonable until a last-minute, cheaply manipulative flip-flop tells us, out of left field, exactly what to think. In so doing, “Allegiance” comes dangerously close to branding every member of the honored 442nd regiment as fools and dupes, though the scribes don’t even seem to realize the thematic impact of their clumsy 11th hour reveal …

“(The songwriter) does seem to have played the “Les Miserables” cast album plenty …”

The Variety piece is important as it is the first objective industry review and will shape expectations among those in New York. And reviewer Bob Verini picks up on the same point raised in last month’s open letter from the Japanese American Veterans Association, in which President Gerald Yamada wrote:

“The play attempts to make the case that … those who volunteered were deceived by Masaoka and made the wrong choice.”

The JAVA letter and the Variety and Times reviews stand in sharp contrast to the Sept. 21st statement from the present-day Japanese American Citizens League. Given the show’s deriding of JACL’s wartime collaboration, its caricature of “Mike Masaoka” and its positioning of him as the antagonist of the piece, you would expect JACL to issue a ringing defense of itself and “they called me Moses” Masaoka.

Has JACL repudiated the legacy of Mike Masaoka?

Whether through lack of knowledge, a lack of interest, a desire not to offend, or a desire to distance itself from its past, National JACL issued a measured statement that labors to address a wide array of stakeholders and constituencies, and is calibrated to offend none of them.  (Download a printable PDF of the JACL statement.) As we’ve said, for some it will be enough that a musical brings the subject of the camps to a new audience, and it’s there that JACL finds a toehold on which to actually commend the production.

JACL officers with George Takei
National and local JACL officers with actor George Takei, on the Sept. 19 opening night of “Allegiance.” Photo: National JACL

But the statement goes on to neither confront its past or stick up for the legacy of its defining wartime leadership. Where the statement tip-toes towards criticism of the show, the repeated use of the passive voice allows the organization to avoid taking a clear and identifiable stand:

“As the confinement of the community lengthened with no access to due process, there was heated disagreement on the best response to the injustices perpetrated by the government …

“Although veterans and resisters are represented in the musical by fictional characters, it is unfortunate that writers have used Mike Masaoka’s name to represent those who promoted Americanism, and portray them in a negative light …

“Allegiance portrays the experiences of a single family at Heart Mountain, and focuses on one perspective of JACL and Mike Masaoka. Concerns remain that the musical pieces together different elements of Masaoka’s contributions during the period, and lacks the historical context to give audiences a broader sense of the external role of the government, press, politicians, military advisers, and others.”

Mike of course was the very face of the JACL’s brand of  Americanism, the author of the JACL Creed and the man who sang the praises of America, so it should come as no surprise that he is named to represent that. We named him in our film. But what is perhaps most significant in the statement is the absence of any rebuttal to the show’s climactic message that “Masaoka” somehow duped the protagonist, played by Mr. Takei, about the nature of the 442, “Go For Broke,” and the consequences of patriotic self-sacrifice — a disturbing message as pointed out by JAVA and Variety.

As Prof. Art Hansen pointed out over a gin martini on Friday, the JACL was unpopular before the war and in the first year of camp, as evidenced by the beating of JACLer Fred Tayama that led to the riot at Manzanar. On our DVD, Frank Emi recalls the pre-war JACL as”sort of an elite social club of lawyers and rich businessmen, things like that.”

But the group’s reputation turned around when Mike tied his star to the notion of restoring the draft for the Nisei as a first step toward the restoration of all their rights. That resonated with the thousands of young men who were itching for the chance to prove themselves, and JACL’s popularity was cemented as the dominant Japanese American political and social organization for the life of the Nisei generation, which sadly is fading into time.

The opening of the draft to the Nisei was as much a part of Mike’s legacy as his initial accommodations regarding the eviction, and for the modern-day JACL to fail to vigorously defend that is an omission that signals a sea change in the organization, whether intentional or not.

To be sure, it can’t be easy staffing a national organization that must bridge the gap between what we used to call the “old guard” and the younger members the group needs to attract and keep in order to survive — to try to function as a modern civil rights organization while lugging the history of a predecessor who waived Japanese American rights at the time when we needed them the most.

Next up: a review of the text (and subtext) of Allegiance, as frozen for the San Diego production, that expands upon the “lack of historical context” cited by JACL.

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