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George Takei’s Allegiance – All the Anime

January 22, 2023
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By Helen McCarthy.

Art is a time machine; it shows us other versions of history. The ones we like least are usually the ones we need to remember.

George Takei, who made his name in Star Trek as the original Mr Sulu and went on to devote his life to activism, has been time travelling ever since he and his family were sent to a concentration camp by his own country during his childhood. He refuses to allow that experience to hold him back. He also refuses to forget the injustice done to over 127,000 Japanese-American citizens, almost 2,000 of whom died from malnutrition, exposure and disease, all of whom saw their businesses and homes stolen and were released after years of injustice with $25 and a bus ticket. This is his tribute to the resilience and courage of the marginalised community where he grew up.

Today, when Japan and Japanese culture is celebrated, packaged, monetised and globalised, that community’s story is often swept aside as belonging to the past. Yet even a decade ago, American and British-Asian actors struggled to be cast outside the paradigm of villainy or victimhood. They could get roles in Asian costume drama, but when it came to telling stories of the culture they were born into, they shared the fate of most actors of colour: cast as the criminal, the janitor, the exotic girlfriend.

At last, things are changing. Except for its two Asian-American leads, Takei and the remarkable Telly Leung, the cast is British, and all but two are British-Asian. No yellow-washing here, no whitewashing either. This is a gifted troupe with a wonderful set of voices and strong dramatic ability.

Takei’s experience is the driver for Allegiance, and his stage presence and dramatic skill anchors the performance, but this isn’t his life story. Unlike My Neighbour Totoro, recently staged at the Barbican Theatre, this is not a tale best seen through a child’s eyes. It has too many complexities.

The clash of an ancient culture of respect, solidarity and fitting in, with the opportunism of grabbing what you can get and every man for himself, is vividly portrayed. So is the dedication of many Asian-Americans to the way  the US wants to see itself – as a place of freedom, opportunity and justice for all. The purity and value of that idea is celebrated in this story of how white Americans exploited and betrayed yet another minority.

Allegiance isn’t about bitterness, although it gives bitterness its due. It’s about honesty and recognition. The political choices that divided families and communities are shown in all their corrosive shame, but the central themes of human dignity, hope and above all forgiveness remain present throughout. This gives the drama a powerful emotional drive. I wasn’t the only one in the reviewers’ seats to shed tears, especially during the final scenes.

It’s not all high emotion and long faces, on or off stage – this is entertainment, and it certainly entertains. The score is hugely enjoyable, played and sung with great verve, and the dance sequences made me want to get up and join in. The staging, with seats on both sides of the performance space, puts you within a few feet of the action, in an intimacy that is sometimes painful. Lines land hard, like the aside that America is fighting Italy but Joe DiMaggio isn’t in a concentration camp. Yet you’re also closely engaged in the laughter, the romance and the action. You can see the emotion between the actors, read their body language in a way that’s rare on the London musical stage.

Allegiance runs until April when, with the brutal reality of both history and theatre, another show will replace it. So I suggest you see it now while you can, not just to see George Takei making his London stage debut in his 85th year, but to see the best kind of entertainment, the kind that makes you laugh, cry, question and think.

Helen McCarthy is the author of A Brief History of Manga. George Takei’s Allegiance is playing at the Charing Cross Theatre, London until 8th April 2023. Photos by Tristram Kenton.

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