Only four weeks, and we are already fatigued with the daily barrage of demonstrable lies and outright propaganda coming from the new Administration. Terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” have suddenly entered the lexicon. In his climate of misdirection, it’s more critical than ever to hold tight to a sense of reality and a common set of facts.
In that regard the Densho Project in Seattle has been a leader in the documentation of facts about the WW2 incarceration of Japanese Americans, both through the video capture of first-person narratives and the preservation of photos and documents. So it is worth taking note when Densho addresses the question we’ve raised before of the historical integrity of the musical Allegiance, screening again today on this Day of Remembrance.
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.
You 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:
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.
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.
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!”
SPOILER ALERT: This theater preview reveals an absurd central plot point.
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:
We received this news update from leaders of the Tule Lake Committee, which has filed suit to stop construction of a massive 8-foot high, 3-mile fence around the local airport that will cut off public access to the Tule Lake site.
“Besides being utterly unnecessary in such a desolate place, such a fence would desecrate the physical and spiritual aspects of Tule Lake, which has great historical and personal importance to me and many others,” says filmmaker and therapist Satsuki Ina in her petition on Change.org.
The Herald and News of Klamath Falls, Oregon, recently reported on a March 19 meeting on National Park Service planning for the overall site. In discussing what it calls the” knotty lawsuit,” the article quotes locals who support the fence without getting comment from Japanese American opponents.
Here, then, is the comment from fence opponents:
NEWS UPDATE: Thank you for your support of our action to stop the fence at Tule Lake.
We maintain that this $3.5 million dollar plan to erect a massive 3-mile long, 8-foot high perimeter fence around the Tulelake Airport, accompanied by a dozen related projects, will cause destruction to Tule Lake’s historic fabric and close most of the site to future visitation.
In American history, the Tule Lake concentration camp was the site of devastating offenses to our Constitution, the rule of law, and the right of due process. It is a place of mourning, a place where thousands of lives were destroyed. Rather than helping to heal the wounds of the wartime injustice, the proposed Tulelake airport expansion on this historic site continues to send an unfortunate message of exclusion.
Under California law, Modoc County’s plan to extend an expiring 40-year land lease for another 30 years requires environmental review because Tule Lake is a California Historic Landmark. Attorneys for Modoc County believed they could waive compliance, leaving the Tule Lake Committee little recourse to filing a Writ of Mandamus so the courts could decide.
We are currently in pre-trial discussions. Parties to the lawsuit include Modoc County, the City of Tulelake, the Macy’s crop dusting business, and the Tule Lake Committee.
In the meantime, if you haven’t yet signed the petition to Stop the Fence at Tule Lake, please consider doing so now. You’ll be joining nearly 26,000 signatories, most of whom signed thanks to the support of actor/activist George Takei on the basis of this one single tweet:
Here also is Mr. Takei’s personal testimony on the petition:
When I was but a small child, my family and I were forced at gunpoint from our home in Los Angeles and spent years in two internment camps, first in the swamplands of Arkansas, and then at Tule Lake. I have spent my life ensuring that we never forget, and never repeat, these mistakes of the past. This fence would prevent any visitors to the grounds of the former internment camp, include the infamous stockade. It would be a body blow to our efforts to keep this critical piece of American history, however blighted, from fading from our collective memory.
Best wishes to actor George Takei and the cast, creatives, and crew of the musical Allegiance, on the private performance today near Times Square to present the results of their three-week developmental lab to industry reps and investors. A successful production, they hope next year, holds the promise of drawing thousands of new eyes to the story of the draft resistance at Heart Mountain and the clash of ideas between cooperation and resistance.
For Japanese Americans the thing to watch will be the “book,” or the script of the show that connects the songs. Rewrites are reported through Twitter to be part of the lab. The final book will be scrutinized by those whose history would be appropriated for the stage: the Heart Mountain resisters, the Nisei war veterans, and the Japanese American Citizens League as embodied in the show by the real-life Mike Masaoka. They are among those who look for rewrites to cure some of the fundamental script issues that have been identified here and elsewhere. But for now, break a leg.
In support of our film being featured on Comcast XFINITY video-on-demand this month, Cinema Asian America curator Chi-hui Yang conducted this online interview for their TV Blog. I told him his questions were among the most thoughtful I’d ever been posed. See what you think:
Interview: ‘Conscience and the Constitution’: Talking with Frank Abe
by Chi-hui Yang | May 2, 2013 at 2:44 AM
The history of Japanese American internment is a complex one and reveals many deep contradiction and divisions both within America, and more specifically, the Japanese American community. You chose to focus on the latter in “Conscience and the Constitution” noting that in 1944, the draft resisters at the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming “served two years in prison, and for the next fifty were written out of the popular history of Japanese America.” What were the stakes for you as a journalist, and a Japanese American when you decided to dig deep into this contested history?
FA: I never bought into the idea that Japanese America’s only response to this massive violation of constitutional rights was passive resignation – shikatagai, Japanese for “it can’t be helped” – or patriotic self-sacrifice as embodied by the Nisei soldiers and go for broke! But as a baby boomer born after the camps, if you asked, “gee, why didn’t you guys contest this?” you’d get a pat on the head and told that “you weren’t there, times were different, you can’t judge us with your Berkeley civil-rights activism of the Sixties.” So when I first learned of the organized resistance at Heart Mountain, which incidentally was my father’s camp, I felt like I’d found a missing link. And the more we scripted out the story, the more we could see that it would shift the paradigm of Japanese American history and show that besides cooperation and collaboration, there was protest and resistance.
Here was a classic example of civil disobedience in the American 20th century, but it threatened the party line and the popular narrative of victimization. That made it critical to me as a journalist that we get the story right and tell it fairly, to document an unassailable case, and to get it into the marketplace with the legitimacy conferred by a presenter like PBS. It must have worked because none of the dismissive “old guard” really pushed back – well, maybe one, and he can be seen near the end of the film.
Most meaningful to me was that the film provided the historical context and framework through which the children of the resisters could finally understand what their fathers and mothers did. Many of these people my age had gone through life feeling vaguely uneasy about their fathers’ time in a federal penitentiary. When they saw that there was no community backlash to the film, and instead a large audience for the recovery of this untold story, they could see that their fathers were in fact principled people who acted in the best American tradition.
You’ve said that this film in many ways, would have been very difficult to make before the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which the US government gave reparations to Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII. Why?
FA: Because without an accepted foundation of verified fact, anything we put out there would have been too easily dismissed as opinion or hearsay. I was jolted into action to help kick-start the redress campaign when writer Frank Chin literally came to my door and said, “If you lose Japanese American history, you can kiss Japanese American art goodbye.” At that time in 1978 every attempt to raise the issue of injustice in the newspaper or on the radio was greeted with letters to the editor and callers on the air who would snarl, “yeah, but don’t forget these guys bombed Pearl Harbor,” or “don’t forget they were put in camp for their own protection.” Whenever Frank Emi spoke in classrooms he had to bring armloads of books and court cases to first prove the case against the camps before he could begin to talk about the Fair Play Committee. Frank Chin showed us that by staging events like the first Days of Remembrance in Seattle and Portland, we could use the media to get across the simple message that the camps were wrong, and that paved the way for the first redress bills in Congress.
While pursuing redress over the next ten years, we had to show a united front with the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and others. We couldn’t muddy the argument by bringing up the cooperation of JACL leaders in the eviction from the West Coast and administration of the camps, or the resistance to the draft at Heart Mountain and other camps. Once we held the government accountable for redress in 1988, we were freed to turn to holding our own leaders accountable, a movement that climaxed with the events seen at the end of Conscience.
And are there still lingering histories of the internment which have not been told which future generations of filmmakers should uncover?
FA: It’s harder now with each passing year, but there needs to be an authoritative study of the false distinctions between loyalty and disloyalty that were forced upon us by the wartime government and internalized by our own community – the no-no’s, the renunciants and the expatriates. Whether by intent or incompetence, these expressions of dissent were driven by administrators who effectively created disloyalty, anger and alienation through the implementation of loyalty oaths and segregation of families based upon their answers.
“Conscience and the Constitution” was made more than a decade ago and you’ve remained very active in screening it and making it available in classrooms. How can we connect up the history you examine in the film, with current conversations and politics in the US?
FA: The unjust eviction and incarceration of Japanese Americans based solely on their race is the single largest precedent that inhibits the power of the federal executive to profile populations on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion. We saw that in play right after 9/11, when the knee-jerk hostility and calls for roundup of Arab Americans were tempered by the acknowledgment that America made this mistake after Pearl Harbor. As historian Eric Muller put it, our memory is a precious resource in the fight against racism and scapegoating, and it’s one to which we bear special witness.
On the cultural scene, the specific story we frame of the wartime JACL’s promotion of military service and its suppression of the Heart Mountain draft resistance has found unexpected life in actor George Takei’s legacy project, a musical called Allegiance. The show premiered last fall in San Diego with aspirations for a Broadway run, and while there are certain issues with the script, which is still in development, it has certainly kept this story in front of a national audience.
You’ve been deeply involved in Asian American culture and politics for more than three decades, as a journalist covering the community, as a founding member of the Asian American Theater Company, and as a filmmaker. What was the starting point for you and what excites you about Asian America today?
FA: Coming out of college my imagination was captured by the AIIIEEEEE! Boys: the band of young writers who first proclaimed there was such a thing as an Asian American sensibility and who proved it by recovering and republishing the works of John Okada, Louis Chu and others. It was an imaginative home I never knew I had, and the works of fiction, poetry, and theater that were created were rooted in our shared history and the excitement of rediscovering a buried past.
Today I can get annoyed by the fashionable notion in some places that we’ve moved past history, past the camps, that it’s all been said and done and we’ve moved on. Then I can get excited by the emergence of former editor Naomi Hirahara as a celebrated mystery writer who can slip in references to the Fair Play Committee; or more recently the Kaya Press translation of Lament in the Night, a gritty 1925 novella written in Japanese by an Issei who authentically captures the back alleys and bathhouses of LA’s Little Tokyo before the war in a way we’ve never seen before.
What are you working on now?
FA: We’re marketing a two-disc special edition DVD of Conscience with outtakes, extensions of the interviews and new featurettes, because there was so much great material we couldn’t fit into the hour-long film. It’s a useful resource for students to enable research of the primary interviews along with the rich database of documents we put online at PBS.org/Conscience . Next is an anthology of essays that examines the postwar resettlement of Japanese America and the world into which the resisters were thrust after serving their two years in prison. That’s another lingering history that’s not been well examined, and we’ll investigate it through the lens of writer John Okada and his foundational novel, “No-No Boy.”
Thanks to all those who stopped by our table at the 2013 Association for Asian American Studies conference in Seattle — especially those who took home our order card to recommend their college librarians acquire the new two-disc DVD of Conscience and the Constitution, for classroom use. It was incredibly validating to hear from so many professors over three days tell us of the success they’ve had in using the film in their courses. Not often one gets a chance to meet with the educators actually teaching the material, and it was rewarding to share the story of wartime resistance with so many students and scholars at once.
Thanks also to those who came to our Thursday afternoon panel, “Revisiting the Sites of Japanese American Wartime Incarceration.”
Our presenters revisited the camps on three very different levels – the physical, the emotional, and the imaginative. Brian Niiya described how the preservation of the physical site of the Honouliuli camp in Hawai’i expanded into a larger effort to modify the very narrative of Japanese American history in Hawai’i. Karen Inouye delved into the emotional heart of symbolic graduation ceremonies for Japanese American students removed from college after Pearl Harbor.
But it was the final piece from panel organizer Larry Hashima of California State University, Long Beach, that was most revelant to this blog about the resisters. Larry broke down the imaginative ways in which we construct narratives about the camp experience in his paper, “The Final Frontier Allegiance and Musically Remaking the Internment Narrative.” Larry examined the George Takei musical that debuted last fall in San Diego. He argued that by casting real-life JACL leader Mike Masaoka as “the key antagonist (if not outright villain)” of the musical, and by framing the Nisei veterans as “unwitting dupes volunteering for an unnecessary sacrifice,” the show engaged in “a radical reinterpretation of historical events” and “unchained” the story of camp from “the anchors of the established narrative” — anchors that are otherwise known as the facts.
He concluded that “while Allegiance may have attempted to ‘boldly go where no musical has gone before,'” it can also be viewed as a throwback to the bad old days when the common wisdom pitted the veterans against the resisters (“a false dichotomy,” Larry says), and Japanese Americans were understood only as victims.
Hashima is developing his ideas for a longer dissertation examining the development of common themes within fiction and film treatments of the camp story. We’ll keep an eye on his progress.
There is an episode of Star Trek in which aliens build an entire culture around a book about Chicago mobsters of the 1920s. The aliens recreate the guns, the clothes and the lingo, but it’s just a guess based on what they see in the book. The new musical Allegiance, now playing at The Old Globe in San Diego, feels a little like that, with its creators studying books, photos and websites to come up with an alternate reality for the Japanese American incarceration – one that looks like the real thing but is governed by different rules.
In the parallel world of Allegiance, the sound of bullhorns herds inmates around, female arrivals are forced to strip to their underwear at gunpoint, and military guards bearing rifles fixed with bayonets roam inside the confines of camp on an apparently daily basis – shoving unruly inmates to the ground, firing warning shots into the air to restore order, and taking more deadly aim at, of all people, the Heart Mountain resisters who are the subject of our film.
An Issei is slapped into handcuffs the instant he answers no-no to the Leave Clearance questionnaire. When his son surges forward, a private turns his rifle on him (“Back up, Jap!”). When an outraged crowd rushes the gate, a guard fires a warning shot.
Sound like the loyalty registration you or your parents remember? Of course not, because it’s a perfectly imperfect duplicate of camp, like the Bizarro World of Superman comics. It’s the incarceration as if it takes place in a German POW camp. But Heart Mountain was an American concentration camp, not Stalag 17.
By design, the rifles and bayonets have a visceral impact on audiences. The theatrical devices can be argued to provide an emotional shorthand for the unrelenting physical and spiritual oppression of camp, but audiences do not share a sufficient base of common knowledge about the camps to recognize the difference between fantasy and fact.
Yes, the family at the center of Allegiance is fictional, but what’s wrapped around that fiction is billed as the true story of the Japanese American experience, and that story firmly anchors itself in the non-fiction world by invoking Heart Mountain, the Heart Mountain resisters, the 442, the Japanese American Citizens League and its wartime leader, Mike Masaoka. The show establishes the terms by which it invites itself to be measured.
And in the real world that many readers of the Rafu still remember, the armed guards at War Relocation Authority camps were restricted to the towers on the periphery of camp, a few hundred yards from the barracks. The internal security police were not trusted with guns, for fear they’d hurt someone in a quarrel. Yet in the internal logic of this mirror universe, the “Frankie” character who leads the draft resistance is seen running in the dark of night and hiding as guard dogs – guard dogs! – bark in the distance. A Quaker nurse offers him a place to hide. Frankie urges those around him to “Run!,” two guards arrive and order him to “Freeze!,” and one fires a shot into the dark.
It’s a key plot point that leads to a central tragedy. And it’s utter hokum. There is no artistic license expansive enough to justify the portrayal of guards on foot chasing a Heart Mountain draft resister through camp in order to detain him AND SHOOTING AT HIM. Even using the thinly-veiled fiction of “Frankie,” the notion violates the basic facts and circumstances of camp. And for those who have seen the show, think about this: the consequence that results from the shooting is an impossibility that could only exist in the annals of a galaxy far, far away.
“Frankie” of course is modeled on the late Frank Emi of the Fair Play Committee. There was only one draft resistance at the camp named Heart Mountain, and only one resistance leader named Frank. We sent the above to Frank’s fellow Heart Mountain resister, Yosh Kuromiya, who retorts:
“The portrayal of Frank Emi running away and hiding is absurd. Frank Emi was never one to hide or run away. There weren’t any guard dogs or 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 that are 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.”
If Frank Emi had anything to fear physically, says Yosh, it was not from the guards, but from fellow incarcerees:
“I recall being concerned for their safety because they were speaking so candidly. There were inu’s (informers) in the meetings but still there was nothing covert or hidden.”
As we showed you in Conscience and the Constitution, the resisters posted fliers, held meetings, and collected dues. When the first 63 were arrested for draft evasion, the FBI needed only to look up their barrack numbers and knock on their doors at dawn. When the FBI later sought the arrest of the FPC leaders for conspiracy, Guntaro Kubota had his bag packed and was washing dishes while waiting for them. In our new DVD, Frank Emi tells how he challenged the FBI’s right to search his barrack without a warrant. He didn’t need to run, and he never had to hide.
Isolated shootings near the fences at other camps, or the two fatalities in the Manzanar Riot, cannot be claimed as the basis for this invention. It is a knowing or unknowing mash-up of events at Manzanar and Tule Lake, or another tired conflation of the Heart Mountain draft resisters with the segregees and unhappy renunciants at Tule. The military entered only two of the ten WRA camps to control unrest, and not as a permanent occupation – a matter of hours at Manzanar and two-and-a-half months at Tule Lake.
Yes, photographs can be found of incarcerees under direct armed guard, but these are mostly of inmates building their barracks, harvesting crops outside the fence, or pushing back at the imposition of martial law at Tule Lake. The presence of armed guards inside the living areas of Heart Mountain was not a commonplace fact of life. If the show wants to convey Tule Lake-like conditions, it should do that story.
The risk here is the dumbing down of camp history in American popular culture. Should the show enter the literature of the Broadway theater, it will be performed in perpetuity by countless amateur and high school groups. Friends say oh don’t take this so seriously, it’s only an entertainment, it’s not a book or documentary, no one’s going to take it as fact. But some already have, according to at least one Yonsei attendee:
“I myself may be a victim of the show as a 4th generation JA – I don’t know much about the camps, but had assumed there were armed guards walking around camp pushing people around!”
Let’s say a revisionist created her own work of art that made out conditions in camp to be better than they were, with let’s say suburban tract homes, white picket fences, and no guard towers; we’d jump down her throat. By the same token, it weakens the integrity of the factual record if a popular work makes out the civilian administration of Heart Mountain to be more brutal than it was.
Our knowledge of the camps is hard-won through four decades of work by trained scholars like Roger Daniels and Art Hansen, self-taught researchers like Michi Weglyn and Aiko Herzig, and dozens more. Several were consulted for this piece. After knocking down revisionism spanning two generations, from Lillian Baker to Michelle Malkin, it seems a shame to sell our history short for the fame, fortune and fiction of a Broadway-style musical, or even the lure of making the camps and camp resistance better known.
Playwright Frank Chin proposes a simple answer to the problem of historical accuracy – just make the whole thing a flight of fancy:
“Set the play in the present: One day in year 2012 a group of young people walk into an empty and abandoned barn. One kid turns to another and says, ‘Hey! Let’s do a show!’
Yeah, that would work, but that is not the premise of this show – and that is the problem audiences should recognize, even as they are swept up in the melodrama of the moment.
Veterans have often knocked the resisters by claiming they refused to pledge allegiance to the U.S. That was never true for Yosh Kuromiya and the Heart Mountain boys, but in this instance it can be said that Yosh is declining to pledge this particular Allegiance. “It is after all,” he writes, “a matter of conscience.”