George Takei
George Takei
(© Henry DiRocco)
If you use Facebook, chances are you've seen a meme from George Takei, who will probably always be best known as Sulu from the original Star Trek series.

The veteran actor seems to have a cottage industry in humorous captions that are coupled with images ranging from the whimsical to the political. But what you might not know is that Takei actually started making these memes as a way to promote Allegiance -- a world premiere musical set against the backdrop of the Japanese American internment camps -- in which he is currently starring at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

"The primary motivation for it was to get the word out on this musical that we're developing," says Takei. "In order to do a little educating and promotion, we interlaced it into a series of funnies every day. The photos and some of the comic things are sent in by fans, but commentary on it is mine. "

The musical's origins can be traced back to a couple of chance encounters between Takei and the show's composer/lyricist Jay Kuo and co-bookwriter (with Kuo and Marc Acito), Lorenzo Thione. Fittingly, they met at the theater, when Kuo recognized Takei's famous voice and struck up a conversation with him and his husband. The very next night, they sat in the same row while watching the Broadway musical In the Heights.

"Near the end of the first act, the father has a song, ‘Inutil,' where he sings about how he feels useless because he can't do all that he wants to do for his daughter," recalls Takei. "For some odd reason, that triggered my memory of my parents, and in particular my father when confronted by the Loyalty Questionnaire."

Like many other Japanese Americans during World War II, Takei and his family were incarcerated in internment camps set up by the U.S. government in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Loyalty Questionnaire asked all internees 17 or older if they would be willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces, and if they would "swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America" and foreswear any previously held allegiance to Japan or any other foreign power.

Reaction to the questionnaire was mixed -- and complicated by a host of factors. Women and older men wondered why they were being asked if they would serve in the military, while immigrants who were unable to be naturalized as U.S. citizens faced the prospect of having no legal status with any nation if they declared allegiance to the U.S. There were also individuals wanting to protest their unjust placement in the camps, as well as families wanting to stay together who worried how their answers to these questions would impact that possibility.

Takei's memories of his parents anguishing over the Loyalty Questionnaire caused him to burst into tears as he sat listening to that song from In the Heights. "Then of course, the intermission comes, Jay and Lorenzo see me with bloodshot eyes, trying to wipe my face, and asked what prompted the reaction," says Takei. Their conversation continued after the show, over drinks, and via an email correspondence.

Two weeks after that fateful meeting, Kuo sent Takei a song. "It's sung by the father tortured by the Loyalty Questionnaire and there I was at my computer bawling away again," says Takei. "And this time, I knew that Jay was genuinely talented. And so we began intense discussion."

Takei plays two roles in Allegiance. In the framing device, he is World War II veteran Sam Kimura on the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. In the middle segment of the musical, focusing on Sam as a young man in the camps (played by Telly Leung), Takei takes on the role of Sam's grandfather. "I get to sing a song with Lea Salonga [who plays Sam's sister], Tony Award-winning musical theater star!" enthuses Takei. "It's as the grandfather, and is a comic number."

Takei admits that his previous musical experience is "very limited," although he appeared in an Off-Broadway musical as a young man, and in England, has participated in the British holiday tradition of Pantomimes, which mixes vaudeville and musical comedy.

George Takei, Paul Nakauchi, Telly Leung and Lea Salonga in rehearsal for <i>Allegiance</i>
George Takei, Paul Nakauchi, Telly Leung and Lea Salonga in rehearsal for Allegiance
(© Jeffrey Weiser)
"Being in a musical, for anyone who hasn't been in one, can be a very challenging experience," says Stafford Arima, who is directing Allegiance.

"George takes it all with a sense of joy and whimsy, and an absolute laser focus on all the aspects – the scene work, the singing, the movement, the negotiation of how musicals work. There are so many elements that go into performing in a musical that George has just risen to the occasion and has found such joy and light in his process during rehearsals."

Both Arima and Takei are enthusiastic about the show's music, which the director describes as "a fusion of traditional musical theater combined with some wonderful authentic Japanese elements that are woven in with a contemporary musical theater pop score." Takei goes on to praise Kuo's work by saying, "I think he's going to be a major presence on the Broadway stage."

And ultimately, Broadway is where Allegiance hopes to end up. "I feel in my bones that this will be an important landmark in American theater," says Takei. "This is my legacy project and I want it to be a big success."