Backstage at the Aratani Theatre with the team behind “Allegiance.” From left: Leslie Ito of the JACCC, Snehal Desai of East West Players, and Alison De La Cruz of the JACCC. The monumental task of bringing the Broadway musical to Little Tokyo has brought together two of the historic community’s core institutions. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)
By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
The Los Angeles premiere of “Allegiance” in February at the Aratani Theatre will be a homecoming for the Broadway musical.
The dramatization of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, told from the perspective of the fictional Kimura family, resulted from George and Brad Takei’s chance meeting in 2008 with Jay Kuo, who would later write the music and lyrics for “Allegiance,” and Lorenzo Thione, who would co-write the book for the musical with Kuo and Mark Acito.
With a story loosely based on George Takei’s childhood experiences in camp, the first reading of “Allegiance” was held at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo in 2009, followed by readings in New York in 2010 and a workshop at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2011. The show premiered at the Old Globe in 2012 and was a box-office success.
Ethan Le Phong and Elena Wang will star as young Sammy Kimura and his sister Kei Kimura.
Takei’s dream of taking the show to Broadway was realized when “Allegiance” opened at the Longacre Theatre in November 2015. It closed in February 2016 after 148 performances. The show was recorded on film and screened in theaters nationwide in December 2016 and February 2017, with another showing set for Dec. 7.
The musical’s Los Angeles makeover is being overseen by Snehal Desai, producing artistic director of East West Players, who will direct; Leslie Ito, president and CEO of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center; and Alison De La Cruz, executive producer of the show and director of performing arts and community engagement at JACCC.
Between the San Diego and Broadway runs, extensive changes were made based on complaints and suggestions from the community, but Desai said, “We’re sticking pretty close to the Broadway version, so in terms of content it will be the same songs … What is being changed a little bit is a revisiting of the book. The cast size is going to be a little bit more concentrated. It’ll be cast size of 15,” down from 25 on Broadway. The number of musicians will be reduced from15 to 11.
“The only song that actually exists in the current show that existed throughout the life of the show is ‘Gaman,’” De La Cruz noted. “ … The birth of a new musical, an original idea, takes about 10 years … ‘Gaman’ is the only original song from the original Little Tokyo reading that happened so many years ago.
“From San Diego to New York there were some changes, but from New York to Los Angeles you’re going to see a different cast size, and we’re also excited about what Snehal and his design team are going to bring to the overall look of the show and how the Los Angeles look and concept will offer us another way to experience the story of ‘Allegiance’ and the multiple perspectives of Japanese American experiences within the historical moment.”
Even those who have seen the Broadway version live or on screen should check out the L.A. premiere, De La Cruz said. “We love that production, we honor that production, but … what we know about great stories and great plays is every time you do it, you learn something new. So we’re excited about what we can help audiences learn, experience, feel when they see this director and his vision, these designers and their creation, this company of artists and musicians in this house of the Aratani Theatre.”
One unique aspect of the Little Tokyo production is that it’s a short distance from sites directly connected to the incarceration. The former Nishi Hongwanji building on First and Central, now home to the Go For Broke National Education Center, was one of the locations where Japanese Americans had to line up, with only the belongings they could carry, and board buses bound for camp. The former Union Church on Judge John Aiso Street, now home to East West Players, was used to store incarcerees’ belongings during their absence.
“We have been exploring the power of place, so in a way the theater and Little Tokyo are also a character in this new play,” Ito said. “In the musical that’s coming from Broadway, how does it feel different playing on the Aratani stage? … I think that’s going to be the special feeling that maybe audiences didn’t get on Broadway.”
The ensemble recreates a camp dance in a scene from the Broadway production of “Allegiance.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
“We had a screening here [at the Aratani]early on in the process of the Broadway version, and I think there were two things that were very emotional for all of us that were there,” Desai recalled. “One was how this musical ties together so much of the history of Little Tokyo and the Japanese American experience here, so it was poignant to hear about Go For Broke and to know that the monument and the exhibit is right here. Or to talk about the concentration camps … go to JANM and see the mock barracks, see the soil from the different camps … to see all of that come together and coalesce, and to share that history and experience.”
He added that when high school students come to see the show, “to talk about the camp experience … and then to visit the sites, to know that rich history, is really powerful.”
Even if you go to see the Dec. 7 screening, De La Cruz encourages you to come to the Aratani. “We live in a time where we’re constantly able to sit and binge-watch things on multiple platforms, we can watch our favorite shows over and over, or we can go to YouTube and watch certain clips over and over … [Yet] being in a room with people, going on a journey together and having that moment where … everyone laughs together, cries together, or has this understanding or crystallization of an experience … Because technology is so accessible, I can literally stay in my house or in my car or in my office and experience stuff without having to be around people. So we value when people come together and the magic that happens.”
The orchestra pit, which is usually covered, “will be used in the way that it was intended,” she said.
Desai observed, “It’s surprisingly intimate for an 800-seat theater … This is probably going to be the most intimate experience with this musical that you’ll have.”
The show is a homecoming for some of the actors as well, Desai noted, because of “the role so many of our East West Players artists have played in this musical’s gestation, from the first reading at JANM to the San Diego production to Broadway, and now the ability to bring those artists back home and have them play these roles they played on Broadway … and have their families and communities see them in this show.”
The play addresses controversial issues in the camps, such as the government-imposed loyalty oath. Sammy Kimura decides to show his loyalty by serving in the Army, while his sister Kei sides with those who refuse to serve until their rights as U.S. citizens are restored.
Lea Salonga, George Takei, Telly Leung and Michael K. Lee in a scene from the Broadway production of “Allegiance.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
The headliner will be Takei, reprising his roles as Ojii-chan and present-day Sam Kimura. Joining him from Broadway will be Greg Watanabe as Mike Masaoka; Janelle Dote as Hanako; Scott Watanabe, understudy for Christopheren Nomura on Broadway, as Tatsuo Kimura; and Elena Wang, understudy for Lea Salonga on Broadway, as Kei Kimura. Rumi Oyama, a member of the Broadway cast, is now the choreographer.
Rounding out the main cast are Ethan Le Phong as young Sammy Kimura, Eymard Cabling as Frankie Suzuki and Natalie Holt MacDonald as Hannah Campbell, replacing Telly Leung, Michael K. Lee and Katie Rose Clarke, respectively. The ensemble is composed of Cesar Cipriano, Jordan Goodsell, Sharline Liu, Miyuki Miyagi, Glenn Shiroma, Chad Takeda, and Grace Yoo.
“We’re casting amazing people to embody these roles, and we trust and believe that you will walk away understanding that you’ve seen an amazing group of artists on the stage,” said De La Cruz.
Desai pointed out that some cast members “are actually regulars who have been in other East West Players shows and then moved out of town, so they are also coming back to Little Tokyo to join this musical production.”
There was a worldwide casting call, and around a thousand people responded, the highest number of submissions for a show in EWP’s history. About a third of them reached the first round of auditions.
“It was a very intense and extensive audition process,” said Desai. “Except for George, everyone had to engage in that process in some way … Every round you had to cut more than half.” With almost all of the characters played by Asian Americans, the goal was “to showcase the best of talent that is out there.”
According to Ito, the 32 performances represent “an opportunity to build community … We’re working with Japanese American organizations all across Southern California that are gathering themselves into larger groups and renting buses together to get here, organizing pre-receptions to spend time together … In addition to being about telling the story, it’s also about how we use this moment, this experience to empower groups of people, to form stronger bonds.”
“This is the largest event for either of our organizations in decades, and I think our community is excited and thrilled to show up and to be here and to support it,” said Desai. “ … I think the screenings and all of that are just helping to build that energy. I think right now for communities of color it is so important that we stay vigilant and that we stay visible and that we show our impact and take up space … This show will allow that opportunity and encourage that to happen on a citywide and national level.”
Greg Watanabe will reprise his role as Mike Masaoka.
Previews begin a few days after the anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.
“We did try to figure out how can we get the opening as close as we can to Day of Remembrance,” said De La Cruz. “As the film screenings have shown, there’s a date correlation for some events on Dec. 7, but I think at a community level the next most impactful date, or even for some the more impactful date, is Day of Remembrance …
“We also see it as an opportunity to continue to educate folks who have no idea about these events as historical facts. It’s an opportunity to educate or open up conversations within families. We have a staff person who has used working on this show as an opportunity to talk to his grandparents about part of their family history they have not talked about before. It’s an opportunity for us, for me as a non-Japanese American, to think about the implications of what those times were like …
“Politicians over the last several years … have pointed to Japanese American incarceration as a model for something that’s good. I think we want to continue to engage people and say no, this is the cost, this is the loss, this is the trauma … Out of all of that there is also this hope and this amazing opportunity for healing and this amazing opportunity for us to do what I think America is about, which is be a democracy and talk to each other and fix the things that are not right.”
“My grandparents brought my sister and I to the Aratani Theatre, I think it must have been in the early ’90s, to a video screening that was hosted by VC [Visual Communications] about the incarceration,” Ito remembered. “I think it was a way for my grandparents to expose my sister and I to what they had endured without having to say it themselves … That’s the work that the early VC crew did in documenting and telling the stories.
“This is the next generation telling it in a contemporary way, in a way that’s enticing and entertaining but really tells an important story, an important chapter in American history. I really feel like it’s important for multiple generations to come together to see it together … They’ll go home and be able to talk about it, whether they’re a Nikkei audience or not. It’s a conversation-starter …
“We’re planning [post-performance] talkbacks … and trying to think of creative ways to provide space and entry for more discussion.”
Widening the Circle
De La Cruz explained that although the core audience is the Japanese American community, the goal is to reach out to those who know nothing about the camps. “We were very aware that Southern California is home to the largest Japanese American population in the U.S. … [but]our model is concentric circles, so we started from a certain center and we’re continuing to move out …
“Instead of thinking like ‘This is the center and these are our stories’ … we’re actually broadening the circle of who’s in the center of this story. So we were able to engage with folks during Nisei Week, we’ve been able to engage with the Nikkei community throughout Southern California, and we have been starting to have for the last couple of months some larger conversations to engage folks and say why is ‘Allegiance’ relevant for you.”
Regardless of their background, De La Cruz is sure that audiences will be struck by “that moment where all of the characters in the show have to assemble with their luggage to get on a train.”
Welcome to Little Tokyo
At the same time, organizers see the show as a way to introduce the larger public to the neighborhood, De La Cruz said. “Little Tokyo is one of 14 cultural districts in the state of California recently designated by the California Arts Council and one of only two Asian American majority cultural districts in the state. That’s significant … For the people who are just getting off the train or just driving in because they know there’s good ramen here, there’s good mochi here, whatever, I want those people to not just come here and eat our food or see our museums, but also come and hear our stories …
Eymard Cabling will play Frankie Suzuki, Kei’s love interest, and Natalie Holt MacDonald will play Hannah Campbell, Sammy’s love interest.
“The Aratani Theatre may not be a theater that a lot of traditional American musical theater-goers in Los Angeles may know about. I think East West Players has an amazing track record of musical theater at the David Henry Hwang Theater … [but]we are too, and we like to say that the Aratani Theatre is like the Apollo Theatre of the Asian American community.”
Referring to EWP’s 50th anniversary last year and the Aratani’s 35th anniversary next year, De La Cruz said, “We have one of the most vibrant Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the country. We get to see ourselves on stage telling a story about ourselves, and not waiting for somebody else to do it … Between our organizations [we have]87 years of cultural production and space-making, storytelling and unique moments to see ourselves.”
Desai summed up by saying, “This is nothing short of a landmark event for our organizations, for our community. We invite everyone to join us in conversation. I think it’s an incredibly powerful, moving piece of work … It just is a very emotional story. We’re so happy to share it with everyone and hope that it sparks a dialogue and a conversation as to what’s happening in the larger world around us.”
“Allegiance” will be performed at the Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St. (between Second and Third streets) in Little Tokyo. Previews: Feb. 21 to 25 with 8 p.m. shows Wednesday to Saturday and a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Regular performances: Feb. 28 to April 1, with 8 p.m. shows Wednesday to Saturday and 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (213) 680-3700 or visit http://AllegianceMusical.com.