George Takei: Political resistance is a "silver lining in a very ominous dark cloud"

Salon talks to the "Star Trek" alum and "Allegiance" creator about keeping hope alive when history repeats itself

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 19, 2017 6:58PM (EDT)

George Takei and cast members of 'Allegiance' (Matthew Murphy)
George Takei and cast members of 'Allegiance' (Matthew Murphy)

In his 80 years of living, George Takei has been a Starfleet officer and a regular on "The Howard Stern Show," a dedicated advocate and activist, and a self-deprecatingly entertaining social media star. And in 2015, he made his Broadway debut in "Allegiance," a musical inspired by his own childhood experiences in America's Japanese interment camps during World War II.

Two years later, the show, with its themes of resilience in the face of racial profiling, feels more relevant than ever. In February, "Allegiance" begins a new run in Los Angeles, and on December 7, Fathom Events is bringing the show back into movie theaters for a one-night event to commemorate the anniversary of the bombing on Pearl Harbor.

Salon recently spoke to the legendary actor by phone about the show, about history repeating and why he still has hope.

"Allegiance" is so alarmingly topical in a way that it was not just a few years ago when the show was in its earliest incarnations. How do you feel about that?

It's always been, in my mind, a very important chapter of American history that too many Americans don't know about. If you don't know your history, you don't get the lesson that history teaches. It's been my mission in life to raise the awareness on this subject throughout my life. I've been on speaking engagements — initially throughout Los Angeles, and then throughout the United States and now throughout the world.

I'm the last of the generation that experienced that imprisonment. I was five years old at the time. We didn't want the story to die out with those people that experienced it dying out. We founded a museum called the Japanese American National Museum, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian. It's educating people on that chapter of American history.

But to really reach a mass of people, profoundly, we thought, yes, a Broadway musical does it. It's so profoundly reaching. It moves people and reaches down to their hearts. We were doing "Allegiance" in 2015 when the Presidential nomination campaign was going on. During that campaign, Donald Trump made the statement, "We need a complete and total shutdown of Muslims from coming into this country." And the echo of that mentality from 75 years ago was so chilling in that statement.

I've done "Celebrity Apprentice." I knew Donald Trump. So I sent him a personal invitation to come see "Allegiance," because I felt that he would learn something. Not only did I give him a personal invitation, I made it very public. I went on the morning talk shows, the afternoon talk shows and the evening talk shows to share the information that I had sent an invitation to Donald Trump to come see "Allegiance" because he clearly doesn't know that history. And he was running for an office where that knowledge is vitally important. He never showed.

I am absolutely delighted that now we can tell the story we told on the Broadway stage on the big screen in almost 500 theaters throughout the United States. It's a wonderful way to reach people — to reach not just their minds but their hearts.

One thing that you have done so consistently throughout your career has been to combine your role as an entertainer with your role as an advocate, as someone who is trying to instruct and inform.

I have been blessed in that "Star Trek" gave me a significant amplification of my voice. I'm able to reach more people as an actor. I had studied to be an architect. I was an architecture student at UC Berkeley. But an architect speaking at architecture forums or at universities wouldn't reach as many people as an actor's voice does — particularly, an actor whose career is strongly related to a show like "Star Trek," which has grown in popularity over 52 years. "Star Trek" shared that common mission on the sci-fi level and galactic level. But the message is constant. "Star Trek" used science fiction as a metaphor for issues of the time. In the 1960s, when "Star Trek" first came on, we dealt with issues like the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, or the Cold War, which was threatening the entire planet. The message of "Star Trek" is very much in keeping with the message that I'm trying to convey as a social activist.

For example, right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — we're Americans of Japanese ancestry, my mother was born in Sacramento, my father was a San Franciscan. They met and married here in Los Angeles, and my brother, and sister and I were born here. We're Americans. But suddenly we were looked at with suspicion, and fear and outright hatred, simply because of our ancestry.

We're Americans. Yet because of our race we were seen as the enemy. Then the President of the United States signed Executive Order 9066, which characterized all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast as potential threats to our national security. We were summarily rounded up and put in the barbed wire prison camps. Donald Trump's characterization of Muslims, the sweeping characterization of the people of Muslim faith as potential terrorists, is the exact same thing. Or how he characterized Mexicans coming from south of the border as rapists and drug dealers, and that we need a wall on our border. That same mentality, all in the name of national security. That hysteria, totally irrational. And yet, it moves a nation. Seventy-five years ago when that happened, we didn't learn that lesson. Here we are repeating it over and over again. . . .

We're doing everything we can to raise the awareness of that chapter of American history that happened 75 years ago. We have been succeeding, although it's repeated itself again. When Donald Trump signed that executive order earlier this year, the Muslim travel ban, massive numbers of Americans rushed to the airports all across the country to protest that executive order. Attorneys rushed to the airports to help foreigners to pass through customs and enter the United States. The Deputy Attorney General of the United States, Sally Yates, refused to defend that executive order. This is a silver lining in a very ominous dark cloud. We have made some progress, in that we have Americans now that are aware of the use of national security to terrorize innocent people because of hysteria.

You were a very small boy when you went through your own experience of internment. I imagine seeing people coming t0 aid each other is heartening. But at the same time, we're still fighting these same battles that we fought 70 years ago.

Well, 75 years ago the climate here in the United States was totally different. We had an attorney general in the state of California, the top attorney, who was an ambitious man. He wanted to run for governor. He saw that the single most popular political issue in California was the "lock up the Japanese" movement. I'm using the long word for Japanese. It was an ugly three letter word. This attorney general who knows the Constitution decided he's going to get in front of that issue to enhance his candidacy for governor. He made an amazing statement. The attorney general of California said that they had no reports of spying or sabotage or fifth column activities by Japanese-Americans. And that is ominous, because the Japanese are inscrutable . . .  We don't know what they're thinking. So, it would be prudent to lock them up before they do anything.

For this attorney, the absence of evidence was the evidence. He became an outspoken advocate for locking us up with no charges, with no trial, no due process, simply because we are "inscrutable." He ran for governor on that platform. He was elected, and he was re-elected twice. Then went on to be appointed the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. You might recognize his name. Earl Warren. The so-called liberal chief justice of the Supreme Court. But I like to think that he was "liberal" because it was guilt and conscience that drove him.

He ignited this grass fire all across the country and got the president of the United States to sign an executive order ordering all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast — approximately 120,000 of us — to be rounded up and placed in ten barbed wire prison camps, in one of the most hellish desolate places in the country: the blistering hot desert of Arizona, the humid swamps of Arkansas, or the desolate wasteland of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and two of the most desolate places in California. These great leaders of the United States were the spearhead for it. You don't need to be reminded, but we were at war with Germany and Italy at the same time. But Italian-Americans, thank God, they weren't imprisoned. Nor were the German-Americans in the wholesale way that we were. They did round-up some and detain some Italian-Americans and German-Americans who were activists for the Nazi movement or the Fascist movement in Italy, but not the wholesale rounding up as we were. That was because we looked different. We were racially different.

"Allegiance" takes fictional liberties with real events. but it's based on very true things and real experiences. Do you find that audiences are surprised that this really happened? That these kinds of things went on in our country within living memory?

Well, as a matter of fact, during the Broadway run of "Allegiance," the ushers would tell us that there was a heated discussion going on during intermission in the lobby, people saying, "This is fiction, this didn't happen in the United States," and others saying, "Yes, it did. It did actually happen." People that come to see this musical are still unbelieving of it. I'm sure that by the time it ended, the tears were flowing like the rest of the audience. It's a human story. People ultimately will identify and share the tragedy and the heartbreak.

At the same time, it's a musical. I don't want it to just focus on the historical side. This is historic. But my father was a block manager in both camps that we were in. We were first taken to a camp in the swamps of Arkansas called Rohwer. Then after a year and a half transferred to another camp in Northern California called Tule Lake. It was my father that told me when I was a teenager and curious about internment. He said, "Fortitude and resilience isn't all teeth gritting, bone biting strength. It's also the strength to be human, to see beauty under harsh condition and to find joy, fun." Our barracks in the Arkansas camp was just across from the mess hall, and every couple of months the camp authorities allowed the teenagers to stage their dances after dinner. After dinner, the tables were cleared out and benches were brought to the side of the mess hall, and the teenagers had their dance.

Because my brother, sister and I were young, my mother put us to bed. But I remember going to sleep hearing the big band sound of Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman wafting across the night air, hearing the laughter. People had fun at those dances, and some fell in love and got married and had children. That's also part of the fortitude of resilience. We incorporate those joyous moments in musical numbers like the camp dance. My father felt that in order for us to survive, we have to become a community. We had to gain strength from each other. My father organized a baseball team. We were next to the undeveloped part of the camp and so he got volunteers and he built a baseball playing field, a diamond. I remember seeing baseball games there. That became another production number. I got to get in the game.

It is so difficult right now, again, at this moment, to keep our spirits up and to keep our hope up. I'm sure you are hearing directly from so many people who are genuinely afraid right now, in your role as an advocate, also for the LGBT community. Do you see evidence of people fighting hatred and fear with joy, and with music, and with games and with dance?

If you follow the news. you see all the demonstrations and marches. I've been working with Muslim Public Affairs Council, and I've been going to their fundraisers. They get a thousand people on to those fundraisers. There's dancing. But that's a very strong, forceful speechifying as well. People are there working in concert and expressing their opposition to what's happening. America is different today than 75 years ago. It is a dramatic difference. People are rushing to the airports when the president signs an executive order and echoing the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans. We have progressed. I'm an optimist. Yes. We have people like Donald Trump, and we have people like the neo-Nazis and the KKK. But they are the small minority. We are making progress. We see it in those demonstrations; we hear it in their chanting in front of the White House. It is a different America.

The showing of the film version of "Allegiance" is an example of that. We first screened it last year; we broke the record that Fathom Events has, and they've been around for 20 years, I think. Presenting the operas and the rock concerts and other one-night-only events. We broke all the records that they had. And in February we are reviving "Allegiance" as a stage musical here in Los Angeles, my hometown, where I was born, and where we have the largest number of people that actually experienced the internment or their descendants, their children and grandchildren. I'm confident that we're going to have another successful run here in Los Angeles in February of 2018. We will keep going on. We're going to keep on keeping on.

Portions of this conversation have been edited and condensed for clarity. The Fathom Events presentation of "Allegiance" will be in theaters December 7.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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