‘Allegiance’ and lessons of US Internment Camps

‘Allegiance’ and lessons of US Internment Camps

By Ellen Ratner   
Photographer: Lange, Dorothea San Francisco, California (From UC Berkeley)

LOS ANGELES — I was fortunate to attend the play “Allegiance” in Los Angeles. The play had a Broadway run, but this was the first time that it debuted in Los Angeles.

It is loosely based on the memories of actor George Takei (known for being Mr. Sulu in “Star Trek”) and experiences in the incarceration camps during World War II. He was born in Boyle Heights, California, but spent his childhood in the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Those times when Americans were incarcerated are not times the nation should be proud of.

During the play, there was a memorable line where one participant says, “We’re at war with Italy, and no one put Joe DiMaggio in a camp.” Italian Americans were never threatened with incarceration, just Japanese Americans. The Rohwer camp, along with Tulelake, was one of the last to be closed. It operated from Sept. 18, 1942, until after the Hiroshima bombing and the end of World War II. It closed in November of 1945. George Tekai and his family were transferred to Tulelake in California. Tulelake was “special” in that it was for resisters. These loyal Americans, who were exercising their constitutional rights, were housed at the camp. So were prisoners of war from Italy and Germany.

The play follows the Kimora family. I don’t want to give away the whole plot, but Tekai acts masterfully as both the older and retired GI and the grandfather. There is much to be learned in the play, especially with the wisdom that one hears and sees in “Allegiance.” The history of these internment camps is often not taught, but the spirit of the people and their patriotism have much to teach us.

FDR, who was president of the United States at the time of Pearl Harbor, signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 to remove all people of Japanese descent from the West Coast and put them in Internment Camps. Many of these 110,000 to 120,000 people were born in the United States and were as American as any other person at the time. However, FDR wanted all people of Japanese descent gone from the West Coast, hence the order.

The play has Takei as a grandfather in the incarceration camp in World War II and then later putting on his uniform (as the Sam) as an older man who served his country in a suicide mission in France. As Takei said during the play, there were 800 casualties in France to save 200 men.

The play makes it clear what people in the camps were asked to sign. It was determined later to be a “loyalty questionnaire” with questions 27 and 28 in the play. Those two questions asked if people were willing to volunteer for U.S. military service and about their allegiance to the U.S. versus the emperor of Japan.

The play “Allegiance” centers on the theme of resistance because of the way Japanese Americans were treated against the backdrop of loyalty to the United States. It is also the story of the divides a family can experience and the choices they make. It is a clear reflection of what many Americans are experiencing in today’s fraught and difficult political climate.

Allegiance Director Snehal Desai said: “It’s hard to believe that this happened only 76 years ago, as it is hard to believe that 120,000 Americans were evicted from the homes and forced into American incarceration camps. Their crime? They were of Japanese descent. Families had to leave everything behind – their homes, their land, and their belongings – and were forced into makeshift barracks or, in some instances, horse stalls at racetracks; and [they were] exposed to brutal winters and harsh summers. Their loyalty was questioned, their freedom taken away. But their spirits could never be broken.”

Although the play centers on what happened 76 years ago, its wisdom is current. That is why everyone should see this play. It not only describes what happened then, but its advice is great and relevant. George Tekai has gone beyond the call of duty to make this play available to all.

One of the most memorable lines in the play “Allegiance” is, “What makes a man is not what he gets but what he gives to mankind.” That is the advice of the play, and it is important advice for all of us to understand, which is why “Allegiance” is so essential for every American to see.

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