NEW YORK CITY—One of the timeliest plays on Broadway currently is Allegiance, a musical that stars Lea Salonga and the Star Trek icon, George Takei. Loosely based on the latter’s experience of being one among the 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II, Allegiance was more moving than I expected it to be.
Perhaps the fact of it being a “Broadway musical” made me think of a light, frothy feel-good production that is the staple of popular musical theater. With few exceptions, the hip-hop-driven Hamilton being one, Broadway isn’t where one goes for cutting-edge Brechtian-style musical productions. Allegiance certainly adheres to the standard format, having the requisite song-and-dance routines. Yet at the same time it manages to recreate vividly the terrible injustices committed in the name of national security by imprisoning wholesale, without the due process essential to a democratic society, a whole ethnic community for the simple reason that its members wore the face of the enemy.
This being Broadway, both the staging and the cast are highly accomplished. Salonga, as to be expected, sings splendidly as Kei Kimura, the believable older Japanese American sister to the volatile Sam, a true California kid (and Takei’s fictional alter ego), both offspring of an Issei or first-generation Japanese immigrant father, a successful entrepreneur who has woven a life for himself and his family into the very fabric of America. Their placid, heretofore rather mundane lives are thrown into chaos with Presidential Order 9066 ordering their imprisonment.
Complications ensue, with this moral dilemma at the center: should the detainees swear allegiance to the United States and foreswear any to the Japanese emperor? Those young men who replied in the affirmative soon made up the 442nd Regiment, assigned to the European theater. The 442nd became the highest decorated combat unit in the history of U.S. warfare—and also with one of the highest casualty rates. Those who said no—the “No-No boys”—were sent to federal penitentiaries. (In real life, the Takeis’ principled stand resulted in their being moved from an Arkansas relocation center to a harsher camp in Tule Lake, California.)
In an insert to the program, “A Note of Thanks,” Takei writes that it’s important to tell this story now, as “I hear echoes of the past, with politicians once again stoking public fears about whole groups of people and calling for databases, IDs, and even internment camps as solutions.”
We’ve seen such hysteria before, in the aftermath of 9/11. Of course, those politicians Takei alludes to are mostly, if not all, Republican, with the most vociferous and fascistic being the Donald, he of the big hair, bigger mouth, and an unrelenting shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality. Trump has been in the forefront of the hate-mongering that debases and pollutes political discourse, starting with his blanket smear of Mexicans as criminals. He has denigrated women, mocked a reporter with disabilities and showed only contempt for a Vietnam War veteran, Senator John McCain, for having been captured by the North Vietnamese.
Now, in the wake of the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino mass shooting, he would ban all Muslims from entering the United States, even American ones, create a database on them, and have them carry IDs. He claims to have seen thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey at the time of the 9/11 attacks, a blatant falsehood. The terrorist Islamic State has no greater recruiter than this man.
He has revived the completely baseless, not to say idiotic, allegation that President Obama is a Muslim in secret. Not surprising, of course, from a man who believes fervently that the African-American president was born in a foreign country.
Trump would be the ideal candidate to demonstrate the thesis that the bigger one’s mouth is, the smaller one’s brain. Which might conceivably characterize as well those who see in this demagoguery evidence of their Führer, one to lead them to the Promised Land, free from the messiness of life in the 21st century. When Trump declares that he will make America Great Again, what are those but code words for a certain faux nostalgia, when white men reigned and women and people of color and of non-Christian faiths knew their place? Those words signal a pining for a Norman Rockwell kind of innocence, for a childhood long vanished, if it ever existed. They could even be interpreted as encouraging ethnic and cultural cleansing.
This nation, as with every nation reliant on a sustaining mythology, has always been far more complicated than what is taught in conventional history texts, in line with what the late, great scholar Benedict Anderson referred to when he coined the term “imagined communities.”
The community Trump imagines is one of exclusion, mean-spiritedness, devoid of compassion, one where the Constitution is shredded and Lady Liberty banished, home to the fearful and the un-free.
It is a community imagined as a nightmare.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2015
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