The actor helped develop the Broadway musical about Japanese-American internment camps during World War II and made his Great White Way debut in it. That turned into “George Takei’s Allegiance,” which will close the Asian World Film Festival on Nov. 2.
Takei will also receive a lifetime achievement award that evening.
“Allegiance” addresses a very personal subject for the actor, who spent most of WWII as a prisoner in his own country.
L.A.-born Takei was 5 when his family was stripped of its possessions and squeezed into a horse stall at Santa Anita Park for relocation under decree by President Franklin Roosevelt. From there, they were sent to a camp in Arkansas and later the Tule Lake camp in Northern California.
“I was called an enemy alien and I was neither,” Takei says.
That wrenching experience would forever change Takei, who became politically active before graduating from high school. Over the years, he has worked with activists including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on various social causes.
Much to his chagrin, he discovered over the years that some of his fellow citizens were unaware of what happened to Japanese-Americans during WWII.
“I was always amazed how little people, especially in the Midwest, knew about this absolutely dark chapter in American history, and these were people that I considered well read,” Takei says.
“Allegiance” attempts to remedy that.
It grapples with the family fallout from internment. Sam Kimera enlists to prove his patriotism while his sister Kei protests the government’s treatment of Japanese-Americans. This causes a lifelong rift between the siblings that Sam must come to terms with upon Kei’s death. Takei played the elder Sam and grandpa in flashback portions to WWII years on Broadway. Lea Salonga played Kei.
Their performances were captured in the film version, showing at AWFF following Takei’s lifetime achievement honor.
AWFF exec director Georges Chamchoum cites Takei’s work as an actor, on human rights and to further Japanese-American relations as ample reasons for the lifetime tribute.
“But above all [he is] an amazing human being, which is why we consider him the perfect candidate for our Lifetime Achievement Award,” he adds.
Like his character, Takei has been dealing with reverberations from internment for decades. The racism didn’t end upon his return to L.A.: a grade school teacher refused to look at him and called him “Jap boy,” Takei recalls.
As a teenager, he struggled to understand how his father could have acquiesced to forced relocation. His father guided him to channel his outrage into politics, a message that really stuck with the actor.
Takei will next travel to Tokyo for a three-night showing of “George Takei’s Allegiance” Nov. 10-12. On Dec. 7, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, Fathom Events will once again screen it at theaters around the country.
“I was amazed at how little people, especially in the Midwest, knew about this dark chapter.”
And in February, the musical will get its L.A. premiere at the Aratani Theatre in Little Tokyo, with Takei reprising his Broadway role.
“This is absolutely my life mission,” Takei says.
In between, he will continue to lobby for marriage equality, traveling from Tokyo to Australia with husband Brad to campaign for it there. He also appeared on ABC’s “Fresh off the Boat” this week.
At 80, he has no plans to retire any time soon.
He got into acting after doing voiceover work for Japanese films in the mid-1950s. Takei received a degree at UCLA and studied Shakespeare in England then landed roles on “Playhouse 90” and “Perry Mason.”
In 1966 he was cast as Sulu in the original “Star Trek,” a pivotal role for Takei, who speaks warmly about creator Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of diversity and ability to use sci-fi stories to tackle pressing issues of the period.
“I’m very proud of it,” he says.
Takei has appeared in various “Star Trek” movies and done a lot of vocal work over the years. But of all the media, he considers theater his favorite.
“It’s so immediate and so visceral,” he says, rhapsodizing about the roar of laughter and tears performances can elicit. “Television goes very fast,” he says, while film takes much longer to do.
His only regret: That his father did not live to receive government reparations for the internment that upended his life. Takei testified for it during the long congressional battle seeking government redress. President Reagan signed the act granting internees $20,000, but payments were not sent until President George H.W. Bush was in office. “As my father would say, the wheels of democracy turn slowly.”