“So we can’t live free in this country, but we can die for it,” said Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee) halfway through the musical “Allegiance,” a screening sponsored by The Mills College ethnic studies department and Asian Pacific Islander Student Alliance on Feb. 19, the Day of Remembrance in honor of the strength and resilience of Japanese Americans who were interned in 1942 due to Executive Order 9066.
The moment takes place after the U.S. government petitions young men of Japanese ancestry to enlist in the military even while they and their families are forcibly interned during World War II. Frankie’s remark exposes a transformative moment in the play, when the tension between resistance and assimilation reaches its peak.
“Allegiance,” a musical inspired by George Takei’s personal experiences, takes place in 1941, when a young Sam (Telly Leung), brimming with ambition and bristling under the expectations of his father, Tatsuo (Christopheren Nomura), returns home to his family’s farm in California. Sam’s mother died during childbirth, and his resolute sister Kei (Lea Salonga) became the heart and strength of the family, responsible for raising Sam and tending to their grandfather Ojii-chan (played by Takei). Takei also played the older version of Sam.
Their family’s world is shattered after Roosevelt orders the incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry in internment camps. Once imprisoned at Heart Mountain, the tensions within the family become stark against a backdrop of intense stress and conflicted alliances. As they face dehumanizing treatment, Kei rallies for resilience at the camp while Sam fights against his father’s wishes and hopes for the chance to serve in the military, in order prove his status as a loyal American.
“Allegiance” is strongest when it allows its characters to divulge from clear-cut stances of loyalty and spiral into a deeper tension, within not only their families, but also themselves. It is in small moments, like Frankie’s blunt rejection of the U.S. government’s expectation that interned men serve in the military, and like the growing distance between Sam, who sees his sister as a mother figure who should support him, and Kei, who begins to come into her own independence.
The musical features memorable performances from Takei and Lee, but it’s clear that Salonga carries the emotional weight of the play. As Kei, Salonga gives a striking and generous portrait of a woman who is caught between family, responsibility, ware, love and survival. Salonga portrays this sense of turmoil without ever losing sight of Kei’s shine and unforgettable vitality.
Although “Allegiance” may be overwhelmed with clichéd musical numbers, Salonga persists as the play’s powerhouse, and gives the audience a light to follow through the darkness.