One of the Saddest Chapters in U.S. History – the Japanese-American Internment Camps in World War II

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Allegiance



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


On February 19, 1942, still stunned from the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the West Coast evacuation of nearly all Japanese-Americans and their forcible re-location into dozens of substandard internment camps, some as far away as Montana. About 120,000 Japanese, including thousands of families intact, remained in the camps, always short on food, medicine and supplies, until the end of the war. The people, who did nothing wrong, were treated as spies and seen as traitors throughout the country.

This poignant story of racism, a sordid chapter in U.S. history, is being told in a superb new musical in New York, Allegiance, starring George Takei of Star Trek Fame and Broadway veteran Lea Salonga. The musical is one of the best history musicals in years. The story of the relocation, and all of its problems, full of family triumph and individual tragedy, is told eloquently. It is full of history and, at the same time, with superb acting, a strong plot and fine music, a pleasing stage musical for all.

The musical opened last week at the Longacre Theater on West 48th Street. Stories about the past like this can often wind up as dull and boring evenings in the theater or, as the critics like to say, “History lessons on stage.” This one did not turn out that way for several reasons.

First, the story has a strong plot and sub-plots that merge the tale of the internment camps with emotional family dramas. It is not just a story about an historical event, but a drama about the lives of people and how they changed during adversity, for better and for worse.

Second, the story itself is perfect for writers. You have a huge number of people, with all their hopes and dreams at the end of November, 1941, suddenly hauled out of their lives and plunked down in the idle of camps that were, for all intents and purposes, as later historians claimed, American concentration camps. These citizens lost their jobs and were carried away, forcibly, from neighbors and friends. They not only survived the camps, and a constant lack of supplies and bad weather, but triumphed. They created their own social life (which included a lot of hot jitterbug dancing), hosted dances, married their lovers and buried their elders. Hundreds of them made a lot of noise and got the government to let them join the army, in a special Japanese-American unit, the 442d, that earned much glory during World War II. May of those who remained in the camps, furious at their situation, refused to go into the military when drafted and protested enough to get themselves kicked into confinement.

Third, everybody loves a good family drama and there are several in this superb story written by Marc Acito, Kay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. The story opens with the refusal of an elderly war veteran Sam Kimua, played nicely by George Takei, to see his sister, who is dying, because of some long ago dispute. The story then races back in time to Pearl Harbor, the decision to incarcerate the Japanese and their struggle to keep their dignity throughout three long years.

And, in addition to all of that, there are a number of nice show tunes by Kuo, including Do Not Fight the Storm, What Makes a Man, Allegiance, With You, Our Time Now and the closing Still a Chance. Miss Salonga brings down the house with a riveting Higher towards the end of the first act.

The playwrights focus on a single fictional family, Sam Kimura’s, based on Takei’s own family in World War II. and then expand it. Sammy Kimura, an extremely bright teenager whose father wants him to be a lawyer against his wishes, falls in love with a white, blonde nurse, Hannah, who is crazier about him than he is about her. His sister Kei, (Salonga), falls for a “troublemaker,” Frankie Suzuki, who refuses to join the army and leads anti-war protests in the camp and gets himself arrested and nearly killed. Added in are Sam’s father, a steady and solid Tatsuo Kimura, and his grandfather Sam.

The first act, which is a bit slow and overly sanitized, covers the internment and new world of camp life for the Kimuras and their friends and neighbors and the second act fine tunes the family strife and the story of the young men who march off to war, led by Sammy, who becomes a decorated hero and winds up on the cover of magazines. He pledges his life for his country and denounces people like Frankie Suzuki, starting a rift with his sister.

Director Stafford Arima does a fine job of telling this complicated story, with all of its confrontations and songs. He does good work too in telling the family conflict stories. In act two, the family tensions really take over the play and the family members, squabbling with each other and reaching for their destinies, have to battle within the confines of the camp and its very, very legal ugliness.

The real story of the internment program was just as riveting as the story of the Kimuras told in the musical, perhaps more so. Almost all of the Japanese in California, except for a few hundred government workers, were rounded up. In Hawaii, where the Japanese comprised one third of the population, only 1,200 were put in camps because of business needs for workers. The camps in the U.S. were in faraway places such as Wyoming, Oregon, North Dakota, Washington, Arizona and Montana. Prior to arriving at these camps, thousands of Japanese were incarcerated at race tracks and lived in horse barns.

The tide of immigrants from Japan started after a recession there in 1868 and continued through 1924, when immigration quotas were enacted. During that time some 200,000 Japanese moved to Hawaii and another 200,000 to the U.S. mainland, mostly to California. They were ostracized by many white community groups, along with Chinese immigrants, and in many areas forbidden to own property.

There were nearly 100 internment camps. One group of them was run directly by the military, the the Wartime Civilian Control Administration. The Department of Justice ran several dozen labeled as “internment camps.” A civilian organization supervised the War Relocation Authority Relocation Centers. Most were hastily built wooden barracks. They had scant medical supplies, were severely overcrowded and featured badly run schools for the 30,000 school age children incarcerated. Some, like Hearts Mountain, in Wyoming, the setting for Allegiance, were surrounded by barb wire fences. There were some civil disturbances within the camps, such as the one spotlighted in the play.

Controversy over the camps continued for forty years. In 1988, President Regan finally signed the Civil Liberties Act, in which the federal government apologized for the internment. The government paid over $1 billion in reparations to nearly 100,000 survivors of the camps and their heirs. A report of a federal investigation of the camps in the 1980s charged that they were racially motivated.

The major criticism of the camps was that U.S. citizens (nearly 70% of the detainees) could not be incarcerated without being convicted of a crime and that they were racially discriminatory (only a handful of Germans and Italians were also held in camps).

The play does capture that discrimination, especially with one zinger that even though the U.S. was at war with Italy, nobody put Joe DiMaggio in a camp.

The one weakness of the play is the lack of movies and blown up black and white pictures, and there were a lot of them, to show what the internees and the badly built camps looked like. Those photos that appear in all the books and magazine articles about the internment would have added a nice authenticity to the story and given the audience a better understanding of what the real camps were like.

Director Arima gets fine performances from a strong ensemble cast and especially from Takei as grandfather Kimura, Lea Salonga as Kei, Telly Leung as young Sammy Kimura, Katie Rose Clarke as Hannah, Michael K. Lee as Frankie Suzuki and Christopheren Normura as Tatsuo Kimura,

Allegiance is a must see for history lovers. It is a history lesson, to be sure, but it is also stellar drama and good music in a bone chilling and yet heart-warming story about the incredibly unfair detention of so many Japanese Americans.

I pledge allegiance

To the flag

Of the United States of America.

We must remember that it is everybody’s flag.

PRODUCTION: The musical is produced by Sing Out Louise! Productions and ATA, plus others. Scenic Design: DonyaleWerle Costumes: Alejo Vietti, Lighting: Howell Binkley, Sound: Kai Harada, The show is directed by Staffod Arima. It has an open ended run.



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