Stage for George Takei's Allegiance at Charing Cross Theatre
"A Jap's a Jap"
In the aftermath of Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fearing a security risk to the nation from people with Japanese ties (not just ordinary civilian immigrants from Japan but also their children, and their children's children, most of whom were American citizens and well-integrated into American culture), ordered the incarceration of over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans in internment camps.
George Takei's Allegiance tells the heart-wrenching story of the incarceration of one such family that, during its time in the internment camp, grapples with its loyalties. Patriotism towards Japan runs deep in the blood of the elderly generation, many of whom refuse to part ways with customs and trinkets native to their culture, much to the chagrin of the guards. On the other hand, the youth are eager to enlist in the war and serve their nation on the battleground, but are repeatedly turned away because, as one of the recruitment officials puts it, "A Jap's a Jap".
Allegiance shows the fine line between collective and individual responsibility
Allegiance raises the mind-boggling question of who should take responsibility for the attack on Pearl Harbour. Imperial Japan's government? The civilian people of Japan? Immigrants of Japanese origin all around the world? All human beings?
Should people who had nothing to do with the attack, and perhaps were even principally opposed to it, be penalised for the wrongdoings of their fellow countrymen and political leaders?
The question is topical to this day. For example, Poland is still seeking reparations amounting to trillions from Germany as compensation for its losses during the Second World War. Should today's German taxpayers pay for the crimes of their great-grandfathers? Where does individual responsibility end and shared responsibility begin? How separated in time and/or space does one have to be from a community with which they share some social identity, before they are excluded from blame apportioned to that community?
After all, love for a nation is not a zero sum game
One can simultaneously love USA and Japan, and one's patriotic attachment to their home nation need not dilute their gratitude to their country of residence. Just as one loves an annoying sibling or difficult parent despite all their flaws, it is possible to love selective elements of a culture, language, people - a nation, in other words - and simultaneously condemn acts of violence. Familial attachments are not easy to sever.
What if allegiances contradict one another?
Further, what happens when allegiance to one's family means disloyalty to one's country? The young Sammy, hotheaded, fidgety and determined to be useful, makes no secret of his unwavering loyalty to America and his heartfelt desire to enlist and fight for his beloved nation. But his father does not agree with the American way, and is angry at the undignified treatment of Japanese-Americans, particularly the elderly, at the internment camps. Does Sammy's loyalties lie towards his father or his nation?
Unfortunately, this gripping dilemma, and several others that come up over the course of this beautiful story, are not considered or contemplated in as much depth as the bee would have liked. Instead, the young man makes his choices impetuously, perhaps even childishly. He makes passionate speeches to his fellow inmates at the camp, but one cannot help but shake off the feeling that this character is far removed from the felt pain and indignity of someone who has had to spend their prime years at these camps. In other words, it is glaringly obvious that he is just an actor.
His sister, Kei, forced to play a grown-up and care for her brother following the death of their mum, delivers a rather bombastic performance of very predictable and unmoving lines. The elderly father and grandfather in the play make for adorable characters, the kind that you can instantly fall in love with (and cry when something dreadful happens to them later in the play, because that is after all the purpose of making them so endearing). The songs are lovely in the moment, but ultimately forgettable.
Given the absolutely tragic nature of the story (in fact, it is based on a true story as George Takei had himself lived in an internment camp as a child) the production feels like a seriously wasted opportunity - one that could have easily elicited a copious waterfall of tears from the bee had it not been over-produced, and had the dialogues, monologues and lyrics had had more in the way of substance and less in the way of banal platitudes.
George Takei's Allegiance is one of those chilling pieces of theatre that forces a society to reckon with its past, and in particular to come to terms with the horrors and atrocities their ancestors may have committed, and to consider how much is a nation as a whole, or even humanity as a whole, responsible for those who came before us (and those who will come after). However, despite the remarkable questions it considers at its core, Allegiance leaves much to be desired, as neither the celebrity lead George Takei, nor the music and lyrics, nor the heartbreaking character of the story it aims to tell, is able to rescue it from poor execution.
Watched January 2022 at the Charing Cross Theatre
P.S.: A Note on the Venue. Charing Cross Theatre's rake is such that half the stage is covered by the head of the person in front of you, always, irrespective of how much you paid for your seat. The bee advises getting a seat as close to the stage as possible to improve your viewing experience, but do not expect a completely clear view. The bee really hopes they will change the seating layout for the next production.
P.P.S.: Cheap ticket tip. TodayTix sells rush tickets to this show for £20 pp. Tickets go on sale at 10 am on weekdays, only on the TodayTix app (and not on their regular website), for the same day's evening performance.
P.P.P.S.: Another cheap ticket tip. You can get premium seats for £20 to £30 pp on the Official London Theatre New Year Sale for performances through mid-February. Make sure to select "Sale tickets" instead of "Standard tickets", otherwise you'll end up paying full price.