Some of George Takei’s earliest memories are of his family’s time in internment camps.
“I was only 5, but the conditions were horrible,” says the actor and activist, who initially gained fame as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu in “Star Trek” before becoming an Internet icon for his outspoken stances on equality. “My family was sent to a swampy camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, and then to Tule Lake in California, a dry lakebed with gritty sand that blew into everything. My family and thousands of others were impoverished and imprisoned simply because our features resembled the enemy’s.”
The internment of innocent Japanese-American citizens during World War II represents a shameful chapter in our country’s history, one Takei says he was shocked to learn so few Americans know about.
“It’s been my life’s mission to raise awareness about the internment so that it doesn’t happen again,” he says. “The political climate today is just chilling, and it’s important we understand the danger of fanning the flames of racism.”
Takei has been deeply involved with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles since its founding, and he is proud of that institution’s academic approach, but, he says, “for people to connect with this, and make history come alive, I wanted to tell the human stories, and there’s no better way to do that than theater.”
The result was “Allegiance,” which SpeakEasy Stage Company will present May 4-June 2, directed by Paul Daigneault in a production more intimate than the one that played on Broadway in 2015-16.
Takei says he worked closely with the creative team of composer and lyricist Jay Kuo and book writers Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione to develop the story, using the research of the Japanese American National Museum as well as his own memories, particularly those involving his father.
“As a teenager, I became curious about what happened to us,” he says, “and my father told me about the humiliation, the loss of our home, his business. At the same time, he talked about his pride in the inspiring ideals of American democracy, and how important it was for people to take care of each other.”
“Allegiance” follows the Kimura family as they and nearly 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, most living on the West Coast, are rounded up and sent to rustic camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Takei says it was important to capture the daily lives of families unjustly imprisoned, including the dances where people gathered and the baseball league his father organized to help keep spirits up. The musical also includes a love story involving a young internee and a white nurse.
Daigneault says he hopes the intimate setting of the Calderwood Pavilion’s Roberts Studio Theatre will lift the story up.
“This story takes place on a grand scale at an epic historical moment,” Daigneault says. “And yet we are focusing on one family, and their individual experiences. It’s important to tell these very personal stories.”
As for telling the story through musical theater, Takei says there was no question in his mind.
“Music touches the heart more profoundly than anything else,” he says.
World premiere for ‘Madame Defarge’
Madame Defarge, says playwright Wendy Kesselman, is considered one of the most evil individuals in all of literature.
‘It’s been my life’s mission to raise awareness about the internment so that it doesn’t happen again.’
“Right up there with Lady Macbeth,” says Kesselman, whose musical “Madame Defarge” will have its world premiere at Gloucester Stage Company May 11-June 2. (Ticket info at www.gloucesterstage.com.)
Defarge, a supporter of the French Revolution bent on revenge in Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” knits the names of the people who must pay for past crimes into a scarf. But it wasn’t until Kesselman reread “A Tale of Two Cities” and focused on a chapter late in the novel called “The Substance of the Shadow,” that she says “I nearly fell off my chair. Suddenly the reason why she became obsessed was crystal clear.”
Kesselman’s eye for finding hidden gems in familiar texts coincides with her fascination with horror lurking nearby. Her other plays include her Tony-nominated adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a musical adaptation of “The Juniper Tree” from the Brothers Grimm collection; “My Sister in This House,” based on a true story of two sisters abused by an employer in a home where they are maids; and “The Black Monk, a Chamber Musical,” based on the mysterious story by Anton Chekhov.
“Madame Defarge” follows Dickens’s story, Kesselman says, but with a shift in focus to the titular character of her play.
“Dickens mentions that the French nobles demanded the people working on their estates ‘quiet the frogs’ to allow the nobles to get their sleep,” says Kesselman. “But of course, the only way to quiet a frog is to kill it.”
That image becomes a haunting song, performed by actress Jennifer Ellis, who plays Defarge, and provides some insight into the great divide between rich and poor.
Kesselman says that although she’s had two readings in New York of the play, the opportunity to work with the team at Gloucester Stage, led by director Ellie Heyman, allowed her to tighten the script and make important changes suggested by the cast.
Christopher Berg is the musical’s arranger, taking the melodies Kesselman provided and fleshing them out into songs that will be performed on a keyboard, reeds, and a cello.
“There are about 17 to 20 full songs in the show at the moment,” says Berg, who also worked with Kesselman on the music for “The Black Monk,” “but we started with about 35 musical fragments.”
Although he hesitates to categorize Kesselman’s musical style, Berg says the music is influenced by the French tradition of street songs, and also has some operatic moments, but “supports the drama in an emotional way. Wendy always knows exactly what she wants,” he says.
Reconsidering ‘The Plague’ at Praxis
Praxis Stage is barely two years old but it has already garnered accolades for its absorbing productions of “For Colored Girls . . .” and “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.” Now the young company is turning to a new adaptation of Albert Camus’s novel “The Plague” for a production that runs May 11-20 at the Dorchester Art Project in Fields Corner and May 23-27 at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. (Ticket info at www.praxisstage.com.)
“When I read the rave reviews of the London production of Neil Bartlett’s adaptation, I thought it captured the vitality of a novel many people misremember as dusty and academic,” says Daniel Boudreau, the play’s director and Praxis Stage’s founder and artistic director.
Published in 1947, the novel was considered an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France. A plague has overwhelmed a city, something that could have been stopped if it hadn’t been ignored.
“We’re living in a moment when we keep girding ourselves for a crisis. Life feels ruthless, and there are these lingering harbingers of doom we keep trying to ignore — environmental crises, pandemics, terrorism,” Boudreau says. “Bartlett’s adaptation strips down the novel to emphasize a sense of immediacy, and the need for people to get involved and make a choice.”
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, May 4-June 2. Tickets $25-$67, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.comTerry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.