George Takei: Life Beyond the Stars
How enlightening it is to converse with someone who has entered our homes so regularly, sharing our lives and spending afternoons in the intimacy of our living rooms. A face so recognizable and familiar it feels like one of the family members captured behind the glass of the photograph hanging on our wall.
Such is the experience I recently had talking with George Takei. Although we had never met, it was curiously familiar and oddly comforting to hear the distinctive timbre of his voice at the other end of the phone line. That face so familiar, a part of our experience for so very long and seen through a similar yet different framed glass case so prominently a part of the living rooms of our lives. Few of us have ever met him, but like a distant yet dearly-loved cousin, there is something very heartening about conversations with him. It was a fascinating experience acquainting myself with the man who took me charging through the stars on adventures I could only enjoy with a trusted friend.
He is in San Diego at the Old Globe Theatre, starring in "Allegiance," the musical based on the dramatic early days of his life. He was kind enough to chat about his life, the show and much, much more.
Hello George, thank you for talking with me today. If you don’t mind, I’d love to chat with you about where you grew up and what it was like for you-sort of start at the beginnings of "Allegiance."
I was born in Los Angeles and we lived in a two-bedroom house on Garnet Street and the earliest memory that is seared into my mind was the terrible morning our parents woke us very early and hurriedly dressed us. I was 5, my brother Henry was 4 and my sister was still a baby, she wasn’t even quite a year old. I remember being in the living room with my brother, looking out the front window and I saw two soldiers in uniforms come marching up the driveway. They actually had bayonets on their rifles, I remember that they glinted in the sun. They sort of stomped up on the porch, banged on the front door, my father answered... and the soldiers ordered us out of our home.
My parents had already packed and were waiting in the living room and my brother and I picked up what we could and stepped out. I remember turning back and watching my mother come out, she was the last one to leave and she had my baby sister on one arm and a huge duffle bag on the other with tears streaming down her cheeks.
That is such a vivid image and sounds terrifying.
To a 5-year-old child, being ordered out of your home in this way was frightening enough, but seeing my mother with tears streaming down her cheeks was beyond terrifying.
At that point we were put on a truck with other Japanese-American families that had already been gathered and we were taken to the horse stables of the Santa Anita Park. The five of us were ordered to sleep in one small, narrow horse stall; I still remember vividly how it stank of the horse manure...
It’s interesting, my mother remembers it as being the most degrading experience of her life up to that point-sadly-there were other things to follow. But for me as a 5-year old kid, my perspective was different from that of the adults. As a kid, you don’t have the capability to understand, to me, it was kind of fun to sleep with the horses!
Children are so resilient; it is pretty amazing what they are able to do with a traumatic event.
It really is about perspective. Like I said, for my mother it was very degrading and humiliating, having to bring her children there for god only knows how long. Frightening and degrading for an adult, but for a kid, you just don’t have the ability to understand the whole thing. As long as you have your parents with you and they love and care for you, life is fine.
Your description of your family is wonderful, the relationships sound very strong.
You know, children are amazingly adaptable to the most grotesque abnormalities. We were there at the stables for four months and they transferred us to the swamps of southeastern Arkansas, I still remember the barbed wire fences that surrounded the camp, the sentry towers with machine guns.
It is such a remarkable story and time in history, I don’t think that many people know or remember it-kind of a shameful secret that America has.
That’s true and that’s why the story of "Allegiance" has been the mission of my life. Every year we have Asian American Heritage month in May, which precedes LGBT Pride Month and I have been speaking on this subject for many years at universities, corporations and government agencies, etc. What I do is speak about my family’s unconstitutional incarceration, equating it to the inequality for the LGBT community. I use the barbed wire fence as a metaphor for the legalistic barrier that imprisons gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people.
Part of what I find so remarkable about your story, is how much attitudes have changed since this all has happened, it is pretty astounding. We still have a lot of work to do, but we have made progress.
That’s right, we have made progress and that truly is the most important thing to remember and to not get embittered by the legalistic imprisonment and setbacks. You really can’t bring about change when you are bitter and hostile. Being able to see beyond what is holding us back, seeing beyond the barriers, that makes it possible to deal with them and thus able to overcome them.
I mean, when you think about it, Japanese Americans lost everything; my father used to say, "they took my business, they took our home and they took our freedom, the one thing I refuse to give them is my dignity."
And that’s the key to the LGBT struggle for equality; we have to keep actively engaged in the process, knowing that we are right and that we will ultimately prevail.
Words to live by, I have always said that it’s much harder to discriminate against somebody whom you know, when you see him or her as a person. It is much easier to dismiss a group of nameless, faceless people.
That’s the irony of the whole thing, at least in the case of Japanese in the internment camps-we looked different-in fact we looked exactly like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.
In the case of LGBT people imprisoned by inequality, we are literally members of the family, we are sons, and daughters, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters and sometimes even fathers and mothers. Why there is this inability to see that flesh and blood connection that we have and to be so blinded by homophobia- it’s unnatural.
That is why it is so vital to let people know that we are making progress. It’s important to note that when this nation was formed, the founding fathers who articulated the shining ideals of this country actually kept other human beings as slaves.
Because of the struggle against slavery and Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement throughout the years, we now have an African-American man as a the President of the United States. Our democracy has the ability to right the wrongs of history.
If you had advice for us as a community, what would you suggest to help further our cause?
I go back to what my father advised, what I took to heart. If we want to bring about change in our society for the better, we have to be actively engaged in this participatory democracy-certainly minimally as informed voters, but also by offering ourselves up for appointment to government offices and commissions. I know it can be tough and sometimes it’s very demanding and you have to make some sacrifices. We have to be really actively engaged in the process. We must offer ourselves up for consideration to elected offices, because that is where the changes come from, elections are so very important.
Let’s talk about the play since that is a part of why we are doing this interview! Can you tell me a bit about the process and who you collaborated with?
The beginning of this and the germinal seed of this production was very prophetic. When Brad (Takei’s husband) and I are in New York, we go to the theatre almost every night. We were early and were discussing the play that we had seen the night before when two guys came in and sat directly in front of us. One of the guys turned around and said, "You’re George Takei aren’t you?" He was in fact Jay Kuo (the eventual composer/lyricist of Allegiance) and the other was Lorenzo Thione (co-writer of Allegiance) and we chat- ted a bit, then at intermission we chatted a bit more and at the end went on our way thinking nothing more of it.
The next night we went to another play and this time the theatre was very packed, we were working our way to the aisle seats we had and I noticed someone waving-it was the same two guys again, this time in the very same row! The show was In The Heights and just before the intermission the father has a powerful song,"Inútil," which means "useless."
He wants so much for his daughter, but because of economic, social and cultural barriers, he isn’t able to do what he wants so he feels useless. For some odd reason that triggered memories of my father in the internment camp in Arkansas-how he was so tortured and anguished the whole time we were there because our future felt so bleak.
I started bawling at the theatre, I’m one of those people who cries (which embarrasses Brad to no end!), sobbing with tears rolling down my face. Jay and Lorenzo noticed and asked why. I told him a little bit about the camps and our incarceration and how it pained my father so much. He was fascinated, so
after the show we met for drinks and talked some more. We decided to have dinner the next night and that’s when we got deeply into the internment story. I told him that I had written an autobiography and that the first third is about my memories of those camps. I mentioned I was thinking about dramatizing it, possibly turning it into a script for a movie or television series, to which he said that’s a great idea, but I think it should be a musical, because with music you can hit the emotions of it so much more profoundly." He was very enthusiastic about it becoming a musical, but I was still hedging a bit.
I maintained a correspondence with Jay and about two weeks later he sent over a song titled "Allegiance." It was about a father being confronted by the loyalty questionnaire. There I was, sitting at my computer bawling my eyes out once more...
That’s when I said, "Yes."
Wow, the universe really wanted this one to happen!
We haven’t gotten to the Broadway yet, but that’s next year, we are getting closer and closer and we can say that the world premiere is right here at The Globe in San Diego. On its way to becoming a landmark in the annals of American musical theatre!
I appreciate you taking the time to do this, George, I am very excited to put this to paper, thank you for taking the time to work with me! I could talk to you for days and days, you have a multitude of stories I’m sure!
As you can tell I am a raconteur and I can go on and on.... (Laughs)
The world premiere of "Allegiance - A New American Musical" is at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park through Sunday, October 21. For tickets and information call 619.234.5623 or go to theoldglobe.org.