A Step in the Right Direction: Commentary on the Racial Dynamics of Allegiance

About the authors: Emily Willett (EW) is a sophomore at Vanderbilt University studying Medicine, Health, and Society. She is particularly interested in how health is defined through policy and the societal implications of this. She has been a part of musical theater for a long time—from singing The Sun Will Come Out in an Annie wig to her extended family at Thanksgiving to performing with a musical theater company through high school, her relationship with musical theater has been a long-lasting, formative one. She especially loves musicals that explore important historical topics, giving audience members a glimpse into history while also still being thoroughly entertained, like Allegiance. Allegiance also tackles systemic issues that she has been studying in her MHS classes and THTR 3333 thus far, so she has enjoyed applying and expanding her knowledge through her discussion with her co-author about this musical.

Madison Ferguson (MF) is also a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, and she is studying Biomedical Engineering on the pre-med track. She has always enjoyed watching musical theater, but didn’t fully get involved until sophomore year of high school where she became the Audio Visual club president and became the sound designer for many of the school’s plays and choir concerts. This love for musical theater developed after listening to Hamilton for the first time in 2017, and much like Hamilton, Allegiance takes a historical moment and puts it into the realm of musical theater. She is writing this post for a course she is currently in, THTR 3333: Cultural Identity and the American Musical, which has really helped expand her scope of thinking and reflection of this particular type of art.

About the musical: The musical Allegiance (2015; filmed on stage) was definitely a step in the right direction for representation of minority races and ethnicities, especially Asian Americans, on the musical stage by emphasizing and incorporating authentic Japanese themes. The musical, which is largely inspired by the personal experiences of George Takei who stars as Ojii-Chan and older Sam in the musical, is set during the Japanese American Internment of World War II and tells the story of Sam, played by Telly Leung. Sam is a second generation Japanese immigrant, and we see Sam grapple with his identity, his family, other fellow Japanese Americans, and his internal conflict to do what he believes is right.

EW: What did you think of it?

MF: I really liked it and I thought the creators did a great job portraying this piece of Japanese American history.

EW: Yeah I agree, I really enjoyed watching it—I’m surprised it’s not more popular. I had never heard of it before.

MF: I wonder if that speaks to the general attitude and messages the musical portrays that don’t align with typical racial binaries and power systems.

EW: Right, I think the musical really makes clear the racially charged motives of the US government during this time and how it was concealed through the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and specifically the character and historical figure, Mike Masaoka, who was played by Greg Watanabe. It was interesting how we see the different Japanese-American characters reacted to the inherently discriminatory actions from the government during this time period, because we see two foils almost—the protagonist, Sam, who doesn’t necessarily agree with the circumstances but wants to actively fight in the war to prove his loyalty as an American, and Frankie, whose family was locked up directly following the bombing and as a result, is resentful and angry at any person in power who allowed them all to be in this situation. 

MF: It’s interesting you say foils because even though they ultimately have the same goal, the musical sets up their characters in such a way that makes them almost enemies.

EW: And we even see this with Frankie and other Japanese-American characters’ opinions towards Mike, and how they direct their frustration and anger at him rather than the white official giving Mike the orders, simply because they didn’t get to see what goes on behind the scenes like we, the audience, did.

MF: Right, which is another prime example of conflict and blaming within minority groups rather than at the larger system that is built upon and perpetuates white supremacy. It’s really interesting to think about what can be said about the racial dynamics of the country as a whole when thinking about Japanese culture portrayed on stage and the dynamics and interactions between Frankie, Mike, and Sam, and how this mirrors, or possibly contrasts, the racial dynamics of the US today. 

“This is the one show that does have an Asian perspective behind it, besides the Asian actors onstage. I don’t think it’s something that Broadway has seen before, but it’s certainly something that Broadway actually needs.”

– Lea Salonga

EW: The fact that this musical not only possesses a primarily Asian cast, but also was directed by Stafford Arima, who is Asian-American and had the majority of his team and creators also be Asian-American is so important. I believe it really contributes to the musical’s success in its purpose, power, and raw authenticity. Lea Salonga, who plays Kei, says, it’s what Broadway needs—it’s what is necessary for any musical depicting a particular culture. This reminds me of the “Balancing Act” reading on Fiddler on the Roof and the importance of authenticity of minority groups, which goes hand in hand with representation and research of said group. With Allegiance, there is no balancing really—they have it all, which only contributes to impactful and profound nature as a piece of entertainment. 

MF: Yes, I definitely feel like this musical has given power and opportunity to Asian actors on stage. They’ve even tried to capture authentic Japanese culture through the sounds and lyrics. Jay Kuo, who was the composer and lyricist for Allegiance, tried to replicate Japanese sounds as accurately as possible. He didn’t physically use Japanese native instruments, which would have taken up too much room, but he did make use of certain authentic elements such as an Asian gong, the Chinese Tom, and piccolo wood blocks. For other sounds, Joe Mowatt, a musician for the show, made use of different electronic devices to replicate the Taiko sounds (Japanese percussion sounds) that couldn’t be done with the instruments at his disposal.

EW: This reminds me of and very much contrasts Miss Saigon and the way in which they “capture” Vietnamese culture (they don’t). In one of our readings, a cast member mentions how they made up Vietnamese-sounding lyrics and instead of actually taking the time to research the language and incorporate it accurately.

MF: Jay Kuo, on the other hand, included many Japanese words and phrases into the dialogue and lyrics. The song “Ishi Kara Ishi” was sung by Kei and Ojii-Chan and it means “[a mountain can be moved], stone by stone.” This powerful phrase being said in the language of their culture shows that they still need that connection to help them get through this difficult time, despite being forced to let go of any connection to Japan lest they be seen as “traitors” to America. Another phrase was also said quite often throughout the show, “Gaman,” which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” This phrase really encapsulates the attitude of the Japanese Americans through all the hardships and struggles they had to face at the hands of the U.S. government all to be considered a harmless, loyal American.

“…the songs of “Allegiance” are themselves a pastiche of relentless optimism that admits to no darkness.”

Nichi Bei

EW: I wanted to address something I read about the musical from Nichi Bei, a Japanese-American news outlet, that slightly contradicts our general views and opinions thus far but is important to discuss. This article of cultural criticism depicts Allegiance in a negative light, revealing the idea that it portrays “relentless optimism that admits no darkness.” I think a lot of this optimism can be traced back to Sam and the way in which he approaches their situation. He seems to be in a constant state of negative denial, focusing solely on his desire to fight for America, his country, despite America’s desire to keep Japanese-Americans like him locked in an internment camp. He clings tightly to this American identity, especially in his solo number, What Makes a Man. He says, “I’ll set an example / help others see beyond race,” placing the responsibility on him to help others (aka white people) see his American identity when all they can see is someone who is not the same as them, someone who is not white. Not only do we see racial hierarchies at play here, but the title of the song also upholds patriarchal standards; what Sam is essentially saying is that a man is someone who holds these patriotic, passionate values and is willing to fight despite all odds, conflating masculinity with loyalty to your country. 

MF: Speaking to that point, I also had a thought on Sam’s relationship with Hannah, the internment camp nurse. This relationship puts even more emphasis on Sam and his love and loyalty to America. He falls in love with a stereotypical representation of America, a white woman. This woman, Hannah, holds a position of power over Sam and the other Japanese Americans; she has the power to provide or withdraw medical supplies and assistance, which could even be viewed as a “white savior” coming to aid the Japanese Americans because they don’t have the power to help themselves. Hannah, a woman, is higher up in the power hierarchy than any of the Japanese Americans, and for a time where women were looked down upon this really says something about how minority races were viewed as inferior no matter the gender. 

EW: Tying that idea into an American context, throughout the show and even to the very end, we see Sam’s undying loyalty to his American identity and the things he achieves as a result of it. He is a “true American hero”—but the musical addresses the question, at what cost? He loses his family and holds many regrets, so even though he is named a hero, I don’t think the director and writers of the show mean to portray him as one. And yes, he is very optimistic, which may be reflective of his naivete and blindness about how his racial identity impacts how he and other Japanese-Americans are treated. The difference in tone of voice between Sam and his father is reflective of their differences in wisdom and knowledge—Sam, depicted as this youthful, passion-seeking boy, has a higher pitched voice, while his father produces a low, bellowing sound anytime he speaks or sings. This emphasizes the innocent and optimistic outlook Sam possesses, that his father knows is not a reality. But despite critiques on this optimism, Sam does encourage morale of the people in the camp, doing his best to make life for them as great as it can be. 

MF: I really noticed this optimistic and lighthearted view with the dance scene that takes place at their internment camp, Heart Mountain.

This scene right from the beginning is fast paced and upbeat with swing music that was popular in America in the 1940s. The dancing also starts quickly with Charleston-esque movements that are very high tempo and fun. This decision from choreographer, Andrew Palermo, might have been trying to give the group in the camp a fun activity to break it up from the other serious troubles they had been facing, but I feel like it can also be argued that this optimistic view takes away from the hardships that were actually faced. 

Everything was also very Americanized from the setting to the song to the dancing. This could be interpreted as those in charge at the camp trying to suppress the inherent Japanese culture out of these people. It’s giving the idea that because you’re in America, you need to act like an American (i.e. a white American).

Later on in the scene Frankie is seen mocking Mike Masaoka, the JACL spokesperson. He sings the lyrics, “just put up and shut up, cause you’re in paradise!” This is almost like Frankie is dissenting from this forced Americanism, albeit in a very catchy and fun way, but he is still voicing how Masaoka doesn’t seem to understand the things those in camps and in prison are really living simply because they’re in this so called “paradise” that is America. This also further perpetuates the divide of Japanese Americans, where those with different opinions on the situation are on opposing sides. Once again, the minority group is somehow becoming the victim AND the enemy, which sustains the idea of power being maintained by the white American leaders.

EW: Watching this musical in 2022 was honestly very interesting. Even though it’s set in the 1940s, I couldn’t help but notice that these themes of the inherent racism of America are still relevant to this day.

MF: Yeah, I noticed this as well, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic when Asian hate was very prevalent throughout the country. When people had heard that it had originated in China, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by 77%, and these were people who were also minding their own business, but were discriminated against simply because of how they looked. As someone who is Asian, Chinese specifically, this issue really weighed heavily on me because I didn’t want to one day become a victim of these nonsensical, vicious hate crimes. I also felt frustrated and cheated by our country and our government that as an American citizen, I even had to worry about this type of thing.

EW: That is so frustrating and unfair. And it’s what happened to the Japanese Americans in this story—getting locked up by government officials solely because of their race, despite their American identities. And it’s frightening to think about how this government is basically the same one we have today. World War II was not that long ago, and little has been done to combat these harmful concerns of structural racism that is inherently embedded in our US government. 

MF: And it can be noted that our generation today has become much more aware of these issues, and we are voicing our opinions against this harmful power system.

EW: Right, I feel very proud to be a part of this generation and the change that has begun to occur largely mobilized by us. Through participating in protests for movements like Stop Asian Hate and Black Lives Matter, I was able to do a small sliver of my part in fighting for something so extremely important and standing up against systemic racism.  

MF: And even though racism is still prevalent today, we are finally trying to fight against it and make positive change, which is a step in the right direction, just like Allegiance is for the musical stage.


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