To hear George Takei say he had finally found a way to combine two of the things he is most passionate about is rather jarring. A casual glance at his resume is nearly impossible. He has been involved in so many things in his career that you really need a few minutes to absorb his entire body of work. He is a man of varied interests as well, so it would seem he must have already done his life’s work.
Which is why I say it was jarring to hear him tell me that he had finally found a way to combine his passion for telling people about the fallibility of American democracy, using his experience in a Japanese internment camp, and his passion for the theater. Allegiance, a New American Musical, will debut in San Diego this September then travel to Broadway for what Takei hopes is a long and impactful run.
He is in Detroit this weekend for other reasons, namely to do the narration for A Sci-Fi Spectacular at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Metropolitan Detroit has a large Start Trek following and he has participated in several sci-fi Star Trek conventions in the area. So coming back to a city that still supports Mr. Sulu just makes sense.
While he is here, he plans on playing tourist for a bit because this self-described city kid has spent very little time in the City of Detroit proper. So he will be spending some of his time as a tourist … a tourist with a strong sense of what he wants to see.
“I’m a city kid and I love just to roam around the city and read its history in the facade of its buildings or on the streetscape. Isamu Noguchi, one of my favorite sculptures, has a piece there in the center of the city and I am going to check up on that,” he says. He is also hoping to see many of the beautiful buildings of the city as well, especially since he has heard how many of them are beginning to be rehabilitated.
Yet his passions are never far from his mind. So one stop he will be making this weekend is to the Arab American History Museum to check out their exhibit Fighting for Democracy, Who is the ‘We’ in ‘We the People’? This exhibit documents some of the history of the interment of Japanese Americans during World War II that was very popular at the Japanese American Museum … a museum he had a hand in founding.
“The travelling exhibit they are showing now is one that originated with us at the Japanese American National Museum,” he says. “That tells the other side of the story of the internment of Japanese Americans. It’s unbelievable. It’s amazing that thousands of young Japanese American men and women came from behind those barbed wire fences to put on the same uniform as that of the sentries who were guarding over us to fight for not only democracy but to get their families out from behind those barbed-wire fences … We tell that story but also the story of other struggles for American democracy. Many of the minority groups that make up our country also fought not only discrimination and segregation, but they fought for our democracy.”
Memories of his time in camps, both in Arkansas and northern California, are seared into his memory. Learning to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as a first-grade student only to look out the window to see barbed wire fences and a watchtower with men having their machine guns pointed into the classroom would have a profound impact on anyone. It drove him to help bridge understanding with the Arab American community right after 9-11 by participating in peace marches and holding forums between the Arab American and Japanese American communities to share their stories. Which has led to the Arab American National Museum sharing the story of the Japanese internment camps.
“I am always surprised by the number of people who seem otherwise well informed who tell me that they never knew such a thing happened in the United States during the Second World war,” he says. “It was the most egregious violation of our Constitution and that’s why Americans need to know about it.”
At 74, Takei still has seemingly boundless energy but says he is starting to find some limits. He has started delegating a few things,like the day-to-day management of his ever-popular Facebook account (he still checks in a lot himself). Which might lead you to wonder why he continues to push so hard to engage in his passion for the theater and for telling the stories of his people?
He was seemingly born to be in theater. He recalls his mother liked to say when she first heard his stentorian voice as he began crying at the hospital she knew she had a ham. He fully recognizes a few good people and some lucky breaks combined with his hard work to become an actor.
The 24 minutes I spoke with Takei seemed more like 24 seconds.Before I knew it he had to rush off the phone for another interview and I hadn’t asked several critical questions like what was it like being on The Apprentice or if Donald Trump has taken him up on his lunch offer?
Despite that omission, I feel like I was on the receiving end of a great conversation.
This post also appears on our sister blog Dig Downtown Detroit.