George Takei is both an actor and an activist. His touching Broadway show Allegiance (which ended its run on February 14, 2016) combined the two, allowing him to shine on the stage as well as tell a story, inspired by his own experience, of living in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. I interviewed George about his childhood years spent living in the internment camps and his thoughts on the current political climate, in a thought-provoking and inspiring interview.
As a child, you and your family were evicted from your home and incarcerated in the Japanese-American internment camp Rohwer War Relocation Center. What was life like there?
I arrived in Rohwer when I was just five years old, so my memories are a child's memories. I do remember some of the harsher realities. I couldn't forget those. There were armed guards looking down at us from sentry towers. There was barbed wire all around the camp. We had a common latrine, which you had to stand in line for long periods to use. That was excruciating for a child, as you can imagine. We ate in a common mess hall, and the food was quite terrible. We were stuck in a single room, for all five of us, with no running water and no privacy. The conditions were deplorable.
How did you and your family get thru those times?
My mother used to say a word to me whenever I was fidgeting in line for the bathroom, waiting to go. She'd say, "Gaman, Georgie." Gaman means to endure, with dignity and fortitude. It was a mindset, and it helped our community pull through even the worst of times. We rallied as a people, turning our predicament into something to overcome, through hard work, organization, and the spirit of gaman. Eventually, there were community-led activities such as baseball games and even dances. We tried to find normalcy in the ruin of the Arkansas swamplands, surrounded as we were by armed guards and barbed wire.
The Broadway show Allegiance, which was inspired by your family's story, ended its run earlier this year. During its run, what kind of feedback did you receive from the theatergoers?
It was always such a joy to come out and greet the many fans who waited at the stage door, often in the dead cold of winter, to meet the cast. Many were so grateful that we were finally telling this story. I heard from many audience members who'd had a connection to the internment, through family or friends or even neighbors. For them the piece and the experience was cathartic, transportative as only great theater can be. They loved the story and the amazing chops of Lea Salonga, Telly Leung and the rest of the incredible cast.
You've said that you hold no resentment or anger from those dark times. How have you been able to move past it?
I have always been an optimist about America, even when we fall into dark and even dangerous times. It is because of America's great promise, the foundations and principles upon which the nation was established. My family and I, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, were betrayed by our country, but we never lost sight of its promise. In many ways, having been the victims of America's failure to live up to its promise, many of us became its torch bearers. We survivors have a particular responsibility to continue to teach the lessons of the internment so that it does not happen again to another set of people. That is what has kept my hopes alive and kept me going these many decades.
What message do you hope is being spread thru the storytelling in Allegiance?
We set out to tell a family story that mirrored the tensions that the Japanese-American community itself faced during the internment. We were very divided, you see, between those who thought we should do all we could to prove our loyalty to America, and those who believed the best way to display our love for America was to hold it to its own principles. Through this storytelling, we hoped to show that there were no right or wrong answers to that question, and that different people respond in different ways to great injustice. But in the end, it is the bonds of family that matter, enough that the seemingly irreconcilable gap between opposing political sides could still be bridged by compassion, understanding and forgiveness.
You've invited elected officials to local screenings of the film George Takei's Allegiance: The Broadway Musical On The Big Screen. What would you like to see accomplished by sharing the story with that community?
We are at yet another crossroads for America, where politicians are taking advantage of fears and racial animosity to press their own agendas. This election has exposed many tensions in our society. Some spokespersons are even now referring to the internment as a "precedent" for present day racial or religious profiling or tracking. That is not a road I ever wish to walk down again. But it is not enough merely to call or our leaders in Washington. The eradication of such ignorant and dangerous rhetoric and plans must begin at the local level. We must make each community a place of inclusion and support for all people regardless of race or religion. That is why we have reached out to elected officials in all the cities and localities where Allegiance will be playing. We need all of them to help us remember the past so that we do not repeat its mistakes.
In light of the current election, where do you hope that we go from here, and how have you been getting involved personally?
I have come out with some forceful Op-eds on the subject of the internment and against those who would cite it as valid precedent for their current plans. And I have also spoken at length on the need to find common ground with the supporters of Mr. Trump who voted for him not because of his racist and misogynistic words and actions, but despite them. I believe that there is a baseline level of decency, civility and respect to which we can return with the bulk of the electorate in agreement. From there I hope we can discuss the future direction of the country without the sideshows that have been the hallmarks of the most recent election season. I will continue to speak out, especially for vulnerable communities such as Muslim Americans who are, like we Japanese Americans once were, being targeted simply because they happen to look or pray like a perceived enemy. To assume they are guilty because of that is simply un-American, and I will not be silent when others come after a community that way.
Find out how to get tickets to the screening here.