How George Takei's life inspired 'Allegiance'

Co-stars George Takei and Telly Leung share how the historical musical portrays Japanese Americans in society.

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

Few musicals tell a biographical story with no preexisting source material. Fewer still feature an actor who leads a musical inspired by their past. George Takei’s Allegiance does both.

Set after the Pearl Harbor attack, Allegiance follows the Kimura family as they are sent to an internment camp as a direct consequence of Executive Order 9066 deeming Japanese Americans a threat to society. While in camps, siblings Sam and Kei Kimura find themselves on opposite ends. Sam enlists in the army; Kei joins the resistance.

It’s based on George Takei’s upbringing; he was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans sent to tens of camps across the country. But as Takei, now 85, remarked, there are still lessons to learn from the internment era in political events today.

“This story is critically important for all of us. It was a hysteria that overtook the country and punished a small minority. What’s happening in Ukraine is the same thing. We must be taking a stand on issues,” said Takei.

It’s the right moment for George Takei’s Allegiance to educate audiences once more. Following a decade-long journey across the United States, Allegiance comes to London for three months. Not only does the show mark Takei’s London stage debut, the production reunites Takei with co-star Telly Leung.

During an Allegiance rehearsal, we caught up with Takei and Leung about developing the musical over a decade, including Takei’s real experiences in the story, and what it means to transform a dark moment in American history into a heartfelt one.

George Takei’s Allegiance is at the Charing Cross Theatre.

Book George Takei’s Allegiance tickets on London Theatre.

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It’s an untold historical account of World War Two

If someone were to ask you about World War Two in the UK, you’d probably mention the Battle of Britain. Maybe your grandparents or great-grandparents fought in the war. But could you talk about Japanese American internment in the United States? Possibly not. While the topic may be new to you, chances are you’re not alone.

“Full disclosure as an American, we didn't know this piece of the history either. But also, racism is racism and prejudice is prejudice and that happens everywhere,” said Telly Leung, who plays a young Sam Kimura.

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The Broadway actor has a deep attachment to the show and its message. Along with Takei and the creative team, he developed the show from early readings at the Japanese American National Musueum in 2009, all the way through to a 2015 Broadway premiere, and now for London in 2023. Over time, he’s learned more about the sensitivetopic, and it’s impacted the way he views himself as a performer.

“It’s always my hope as a theatre artist that audience members walk out and they are changed for the better. When they walk down the street, people could feel different and look at their fellow man differently, that they treat fellow human beings and fellow citizens differently.”

For Takei, it’s crucial that Allegiance educates audiences and gives a voice to those interned 80 years ago. “To put it in a quick and very simple nutshell: We were American citizens. We had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. But we looked like the people that were.

"When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, it ordered all Japanese Americans into camps and orphanages. I mean, what threat to the government were parentless children and babies?” pondered the Star Trek actor.

With active wars in Europe and the Middle East continuing to tear families apart, will Allegiance hold a deeper meaning in 2023? “Those kinds of conversations are now going to be richer and more nuanced because of everything we've gone through in 2020 and beyond,” said Leung.

For Takei, there’s no stopping the musical. “I want to see Allegiance go everywhere. The message of Allegiance is vitally important to this global society that we live in.”

Allegiance finds joy in heartache

While Allegiance is inspired by George Takei’s life, the characters, although deep-rooted in historical events, are fictional. “We went through a lot of iterations of this show: Many changes in characters, names, characters came and went,” said Leung. “But the core of Allegiance and George’s story has stayed intact and the reason why we're all doing it — for George and his community to tell the story.”

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Takei definitely tells his story. He plays two characters: present day war veteran Sam Kimura who attends a Pearl Harbor anniversary, and “Oji-chan” — Sam Kimura's granddad — in 1940s America. For Takei, portraying two characters's involvement with one event shows how America hasn't changed much in the last century.

“The musical involves a very important American weakness: we can be swept up by racism and more hysteria and fallible human beings. We are all imperfect human beings. Unless we learn these lessons, we will keep repeating it over and over and over,” said Takei.

Allegiance isn’t all doom and gloom, though. When the show played in New York, critics praised the “heart to heart connection. It’s good old fashioned Broadway: inspiration, jazzy tunes, and love ballads.” Eight years on, Allegiance gets a new spotlight in London.

“Every step of the way, I am not sure I ever thought this story would be on a Broadway stage or a U.K. stage because when you say to somebody, 'Here's a musical about the Japanese American internment,' it’s like, 'We’re gonna make a musical out of that?' I think we found a really wonderful way to make an uplifting, joyful show within something that is a dark chapter of American history,” said Leung.

George Takei’s story was bound for London

Even though George Takei is a Japanese American actor who grew up and studied in California, the actor has a fondness for London.

“I keep gravitating to London and its environs. I was born three weeks before the coronation of George VI — I'm a Japanese American named after an English king!” said Takei with a laugh.

Allegiance also marks Leung’s London debut. At first, Leung was daunted at the thought of working with Takei. Now? It’s like reuniting with an old friend.

“George is the reason why we're here. When I first met him, it was in 2009 for the first reading of this. It's always been such an honour to work on a show with him, especially to play a younger version of a character that he plays,” said Leung.

Taking on Takei’s story isn’t the easiest task, but Leung wears the responsibility on both shoulders. “Now, I get to carry on his family’s legacy and story. I'm so grateful for this opportunity, not only work on the show, but to see an old friend.”

Book George Takei’s Allegiance tickets on London Theatre.

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*Photo credit: Allegiance on Broadway (Photo courtesy of production)

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