Stafford Arima discusses why it was so important to be part of a musical on Japanese Canadian internment now. Arima was the first Japanese Canadian to direct a Broadway musical, making his debut with Allegiance, starring George Takei and Lea Salonga. Photo credit: Vii Tanner.
After a preview run of the Broadway musical, Allegiance, which follows the story of an interned Japanese American family during the Second World War, director Stafford Arima recalls overhearing a conversation between two audience members.
While walking up an aisle and past a couple after the emotional end of the musical, he saw the wife dabbing away tears, and her husband comforting her.
“He said, ‘oh darling it’s okay, they got it all wrong, they were only in there for a couple of months.’”
“And I thought to myself, how interesting, that kind of denial is embedded in individuals who feel perhaps some sort of shame, maybe subconsciously or have been misinformed or miseducated,” says Arima in an interview with the Nikkei Voice. “But I thought yes, this is why we’re doing this, this is why.”
Arima’s musical, Allegiance, tells a story based on true events, of the Kimura family, who are forced to leave their home for an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. While one brother wants to prove his patriotism by fighting for America, his sister protests the treatment of Japanese Americans by the country they’ve called home their entire lives.
Arima’s love for musical theatre began at a young age. When he was 11 years-old, he was in Los Angeles, Calf. with his mother. Arima laughs and says he wanted to go to Disneyland or Universal Studios, but his mother, who loved the theatre, brought him to see Evita, written by Tim Rice and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
It was 1980, and the musical was still new, and very popular, so they couldn’t get great seats. Arima says he sat in the front row of the balcony, and became completely entranced by the show.
“I remember sitting in that darkened space and just becoming transfixed by the narrative energy of song and in this case, dance, and story and how it all comes together in the art form we now call the musical,” says Arima.
Growing up on classical musicals like Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music and the Wizard of Oz, Arima says he was fascinated with the notion of telling a narrative through song.
Over 25 years later, Arima was making his own entrance into Broadway, with a musical with deep personal connections. Allegiance was Arima’s debut into the world of directing Broadway. Born in Canada, with a degree from York University, the Japanese-Chinese sansei is the first Asian Canadian to direct a Broadway musical in New York City.
“I thought that this would be the perfect debut for me because it is a story that is obviously very personal. It’s not my story, nor is it my family’s story, but it represents a story of Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans and I’m a Japanese Canadian so I felt that if I was going to do something on Broadway that this would be the one,” says Arima.
Never learning about internment in school, or having a discussion with his family as a child, Arima brought questions to his family while preparing for Allegiance. He quickly learned that it was a delicate subject for his family, with old wounds that may not have entirely healed.
“Although I believe that let’s put the past behind us because we can’t live in it or wallow in it, but I do think that perhaps we took it too far and there was a whole generation that didn’t want to talk about it,” says Arima.
His father, Ray Arima, a young boy during the war, was interned with his mother, brother and two older sisters in Slocan City. While interned, Ray’s mother died, Arima believes because of a lack of proper health care in the camp. She was 47 years-old. Her death left the eldest sister alone to raise her younger siblings, since their father passed away before the war.
The internment camps were times filled with good memories of growing up with friends and family and tragic memories of losing their mother that Arima sees still follow his family, which made Allegiance a project more important than his just first Broadway musical. It made it all the more meaningful when is father, uncle, aunt, sister and rest of his family made the trip to New York to see the show
“It still has on some level affected our lives, even if we’ve moved and my family moved on and moved east and raised new families,” says Arima. “It’s still a bitter pill to swallow, and I think pieces like Allegiance and the fact that we can talk about it more and more is a very helpful tonic to heal and raise awareness.”
While the musical wasn’t a Broadway smash like Hamilton or Wicked, it definitely succeeded in teaching the public about internment. After Allegiance smashed box office records in the Old Globe Theatre, running 50 sold out shows in San Diego, and moved on to New York to try its hand in the Broadway circuit.
The musical ran 150 shows on Broadway, and was seen by 120,000 people. The musical brought in many curious eyes with its major star power, with leads George Takei and Lea Salonga. Takei is most notably known as playing Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, as well as cultivating a massive online following, with nearly two million twitter followers and almost 10 million likes on his Facebook page.
Salonga, well-loved for providing the singing voices of Mulan and Princess Jasmine (Aladdin), was also the first Asian woman to win a Tony award, as the lead in Miss Saigon.
Along with the major star power, Allegiance caught the ear of mainstream media, and was covered by media outlets like the Globe and Mail, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times.
Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Allegiance is an important show with a phenomenal cast, and it deserves to be seen.”
Choosing for the story to be told through a musical over a play was a way to reach the widest demographic of people, says Arima, and to teach them about internment.
Now the musical is making its way to the big screen, being shown in Cineplex movie theatres across Canada on Dec. 13. Because of popular demand, two additional shows have been added to Toronto, at Cineplex Yonge-Dundas theatre on Dec. 17 and 20.
This is a way to reach even more people, says Arima. People who could not make it to New York or afford $180 Broadway tickets can now see the musical.
Arima points out that the musical is coming to movie theatres during a time of socio-political change, different than when it debuted on Broadway. What happened during the war was based of fear of the ‘other’, and this election has stirred up that sense of xenophobia and fear of the ‘other’ again. He says he hopes this musical can start a discussion about inclusion and embracing the diversity that exists on this planet.
“There is a lyric in Allegiance, “ishi kara ishi”, which is ‘stone by stone’ and the notion that you can move a mountain stone by stone and I think that’s the spirit in which the musical was produced,” says Arima.