Greg Watanabe is back as Mike Masaoka as the Broadway musical ‘Allegiance’ prepares its run in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Greg Watanabe will once again star as Mike Masaoka in the musical “Allegiance,” which begins in Los Angeles in February.
By George Toshio Johnston, Senior Editor, Digital & Social Media
Almost two years after ending its Broadway run at the Longacre Theatre in New York, the musical drama “Allegiance” returns to its Southern California roots in February when it comes to Little Tokyo’s Aratani Theatre as a joint production of East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.
While there will be new cast members in the Los Angeles production that tells the story of a fictional Japanese American family’s incarceration at the hands of the U.S. government during World War II, returning will be George Takei, who plays two roles in the production and was instrumental to the musical’s genesis more than a decade ago. (Jay Kuo is “Allegiance’s” composer-lyricist and co-librettist, and Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione are the co-librettists.)
Also returning will be actor Greg Watanabe, and of all the roles he has played — YouTube videos as a member of comedy troupe 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, various TV bit parts, a GI in the celebrated 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team in “Only the Brave” and coram nobis case litigant Gordon Hirabayashi in the stage play “Hold These Truths” — none has been more potentially incendiary than that of JACL legend, lightning rod and human Rorschach test Mike Masaoka in the 2015-16 Broadway production of “Allegiance.”
The versatile Watanabe will again walk through a minefield of history as he reprises the role of the face and voice of the JACL when racism, war hysteria and failed political leadership resulted in U.S. citizen Nisei and legal permanent resident alien Issei (who were barred from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens) getting uprooted from their West Coast homes, farms and businesses and incarcerated in U.S. government-run concentration camps during WWII.
For Broadway, such subject matter was a revelation. But Los Angeles is home to the continental United States’ largest population of Japanese Americans. If Watanabe, who just turned 50, is worried about how those who were directly — or indirectly affected — by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066 will respond to “Allegiance” and the musical’s take on Masaoka, he doesn’t show it.
“I love that it’s going to be in L.A., and I love that it’s going to be co-produced by East West Players and the JACCC,” said Watanabe, who expressed relief that by the time he “came on board the whole ‘Allegiance’ train,” gone were parts of the musical in an earlier iteration that included a singing and dancing Masaoka.
For Watanabe, that worked out just fine.
“That’s the only reason I could have done it because I neither sing nor dance,” he chuckled, noting that his was the only principal role to not require those skills. “It happened to be that it worked out so great for me that they had changed the Masaoka part so much to the point that if they were going to have a character who was named after a historical figure, it should be more grounded in reality.”
Also unique among all the roles in “Allegiance”: only the part of Mike Masaoka uses the real name of an actual person. While the fictional role of Frank Suzuki may be based upon the real-life Frank Emi, a leader of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, “Allegiance’s” Masaoka is based on a real person and uses that person’s name and actual words.
“There are a couple of speeches that he gives,” said Watanabe of his portrayal of Masaoka, and “one of them was directly taken out of War Relocation Authority propaganda films. Other stuff was taken from a speech he gave to the JACL that he gave at some point later on in his life, mainly talking about, sort of his own legacy, in some ways defending his own sort of position that he had taken and decisions he had made during wartime.”
Watanabe feels that Masaoka was not alone among Japanese Americans in espousing particular views.
“One of the things that I think was important about what I was trying to do with that part was also imagine that there were a lot of people that felt that way,” Watanabe said. “In a time of uncertainty and given a lot of bad choices, it wasn’t just Mike Masaoka. There were a number of people who felt like, ‘Yeah, we grin and bear this, you (referring to resisters and litigants) shouldn’t be making noise.’”
Casting a Long Shadow
So significant a shadow does Masaoka cast that to this day, the effects upon Japanese Americans of the actions and words credited to him during his stint as the executive secretary of JACL during and after WWII are still debated by his supporters and detractors.
For instance, in 2015, the National JACL issued the following statement: “It is important to keep in mind that this musical is an artistic interpretation of events that provide a backdrop for a love story. Although most of the characters, which are loosely based on individuals, have fictional names, the JACL is disturbed by the play’s use of the names of the Japanese American Citizens League and of Mike Masaoka. The JACL is concerned that by using actual names, audience members may forget that they are watching a historical fiction.”
Seattle-based documentarian (“Conscience and the Constitution”) Frank Abe had this to say about the artistic choice of singling out one actual person among a cast of fictional characters when he penned a tough 2015 critique (tinyurl.com/y9ctprs5) of the Broadway production of “Allegiance”: “By using Mike’s real name, ‘Allegiance’ establishes the terms by which it invites itself to be measured. So why use his name, despite community complaints and formal objections? One reason may be that in a city with the living memory of the Twin Towers attack of 9/11 and threats to round up and remove all persons of Iranian descent, making a Japanese American the villain of the piece avoids grim realities and helps secure the feel-good nature of the evening.
“Make no mistake, the real Mike Masaoka bears plenty of responsibility for waiving Japanese American rights at the height of war and racial
hysteria, and for acting as a confidential informant for the FBI,” Abe continued. “But setting him up as the villain has the emotional effect, intended or not, of letting the government off the hook. It’s as if to say, ‘Look at Mike, he was the culprit,’ not the general who lied about military necessity, the major who was the architect of mass eviction and incarceration, the president who signed the order or the machinery of government that carried out the order.”
Watanabe, who as an actor has to walk the fine line between the hubris and humanity of a real person, seemed to concur with Abe’s take that Masaoka should not be construed as the villain, noting how the role has evolved from “Allegiance’s” early days to now.
“He was definitely viewed as a figure who was a conduit of the government and so was viewed pretty negatively,” Watanabe said. “I think from a number of people who I spoke to, their opinion was, ‘Well, he’s such an antagonist, he’s so nonsympathetic,’ that a viewer might mistake him as being the cause of the internment and concentration camps instead of the government.”
Masaoka, who died in 1991, was nevertheless a polarizing figure to some within the Japanese American community.
“He felt very passionately that he was right,” Watanabe said. “There were probably other people who felt like he was vindicated, especially when you talk about the 442.” (Note: Masaoka was a strong proponent of allowing draft-age Nisei to be able to serve in the armed forces as combatants after the U.S. had reclassified Japanese Americans as 4-C or enemy aliens ineligible to serve in the military. Masaoka was famously the first to volunteer to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.)
Playing the Part
Before landing the role in “Allegiance,” Watanabe said what he knew of the actual Mike Masaoka was limited.
“I knew some of the basics, that he was the wartime leader of the JACL and that he was a big proponent of the formation of the 442,” he said, adding that his understanding was that when Executive Order 9066 was issued, Masaoka “was key to having National JACL come out strongly in favor of having JACL members cooperate with the government.”
Unlike a well-known historical figure such as Winston Churchill, who is being portrayed by Gary Oldman in the new movie “Darkest Hour,” there is a dearth of archival material of a young Mike Masaoka that an actor can use to emulate and capture. Asked how he prepared to portray things like Masaoka’s mannerisms and speech patterns, Watanabe said it was tough.
“The thing was, I couldn’t find a whole lot of first source, primary stuff,” Watanabe said. “There is some. If you do a YouTube search of him, you can see some video,” noting that finding actual filmed footage or recorded audio from the years of WWII was something that probably didn’t exist.
“It had to be an imagined thing,” said Watanabe. “He was 26 years old when the war broke out, so he’s a young man. But everything that I had heard was that he was very charismatic, and that yes, he was an excellent speaker, really smart. I tried to keep that in mind and try to approach the role with the kind of energy and vigor that I thought a young, caring, driven man would have.”
Abe had praise for Watanabe’s portrayal of the young Masaoka.
“Greg Watanabe captures Masaoka’s earnest surrender of civil rights with a seriousness of purpose and flashes of stubborn defiance. Watanabe did his homework, reading Masaoka’s memoir and studying his interview and video on our two-disc DVD (‘Conscience and the Constitution’). It shows in Watanabe’s performance; a nonsinger, his portrayal has gravity.”
“I derived most of it from what I would have done in that situation,” Watanabe said, “to allow the words that were written to carry the character.”
Hollywood (the actual place and the business) and Little Tokyo (where the musical will be staged) are just miles apart in the city of Los Angeles — but they might as well be in different galaxies based on how little Little Tokyo figures in Hollywood as a real setting with real people and actual stories.
But with “Allegiance” bringing attention to itself and Little Tokyo, could it possibly also help Hollywood “discover” Watanabe? It’s definitely crossed Watanabe’s mind.
“I moved to L.A. from Northern California, where I cut my teeth doing Asian American theater, to make it in TV or film, or at least avail myself to that possibility,” Watanabe said. “I’ve never been able to find that traction. I tried to move when I was still young enough — the whole industry is centered around youth — I was slow, I think, to adapt to what the realities are, of how you have to claw your way in.”
Since “Allegiance,” however, Watanabe has been able to get roles in regional theater in places such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Portland, Ore. One of those roles was another well-known Japanese American, Gordon Hirabayashi, in Jeanne Sakata’s play “Hold These Truths.”
“It’s such a brutal industry … I couldn’t do the Gordon Hirabayashi story on film because I’m too old, if you wanted to tell it when he was in his 20s,” Watanabe said. “Maybe now that I’m in town with ‘Allegiance,’ maybe something will happen.”
But with the high-profile “Allegiance” arriving in the same town where Little Tokyo and Hollywood coexist, could a major movie studio finally tell in a big-budget way the story of how the U.S. government, in a time of crisis, abrogated its constitutional protections, vis-à-vis Japanese Americans? Or, in the case of Watanabe, give him a lead role?
“I’d love to see that happen,” Watanabe said. “Sure, I could be the lead in a detective procedural or something like that, or just a regular guy.”
While Watanabe could indeed play the part of a “regular guy,” he is in actuality a bit of a social media activist who regularly posts links to stories of injustice and racism, without regard to whether doing so might make him appear to be to be a do-gooder or troublemaker and possibly scare off a producer looking to hire an actor for an Asian role.
“If there are examples of egregious acts of racism against Asian Americans, I think it’s important for everyone to note that,” Watanabe said, “as well as positive things.”
He added that since Hollywood hasn’t paid him much notice anyway: “Honestly, it hadn’t even occurred to me, probably because I’ve had so little traction in movies and television that it’s like I don’t really care.”
Working With Takei
In the months leading up to the Aratani Theater’s staging of “Allegiance,” one of the big, continuing stories was how acts — as well as allegations — of sexual misconduct by men in politics, the news media and the entertainment industry caused direct and collateral damage to careers and reputations. The name of Watanabe’s fellow “Allegiance” thespian, George Takei, came up among those so accused. Takei denied those accusations.
“When he says, ‘I don’t remember ever meeting this guy, I don’t remember this ever happening, I don’t even remember this fellow,’ I believe him,” Watanabe said. “I stand with him. I don’t know anything about this guy, who this guy was, what his motivations might be, but I trust George to the point where I take him at his word, unless something comes around otherwise.
“I may not be a close personal friend, but I feel like I know him to the point where he’s a person of integrity, to the point where if something like this had occurred, that he would admit to it.
“I think it’s unfortunate regardless of what the truth is, that is to say, if this guy is telling the truth, then this person I look up to and admire has done this thing, regardless of it being 40 years ago,” Watanabe continued. “It’s unfortunate if George is telling the truth and this fellow, whatever his motivations …that kind of accusation holds a lot of weight and has consequences.”
Watanabe notes that unlike other men who have been accused, no other accusers have since emerged.
Regarding “Allegiance,” Watanabe says that the story is as relevant as it ever was.
“This is such a timely story, to talk about the incarceration experience of Japanese Americans because of what is happening in Muslim communities because of the kind of Muslim ban that the present administration is talking about imposing,” he said.
He also wanted to emphasize what “Allegiance” is not.
“A mistaken notion about ‘Allegiance’ is that it is going to be a trip down Misery Lane. It’s simply going to be a tragic, difficult to endure thing,” Watanabe said. “But,in fact, while it has its elements of community suffering and tragedy, it’s about triumph of spirit, it’s about enduring and continuing on and building family and community.
“So, I think the final notes of the play are about reconciliation and recognizing years-long rifts that exist between, say resisters of conscience and vets and coming to a grudging understanding of respect and appreciation of what each side did.”
Co-produced by EWP and JACCC by special arrangement with Sing Out, Louise! Prods. and ATA, with performances at JACCC’s Aratani Theatre in Los Angeles from Feb. 21-April 1, 2018. Previews will run from Feb. 21-25, with the opening-night performance and reception on Feb. 28. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/ycdgbxqp.