Public history on Broadway (Part 1)

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Video credit: Allegiance website

Editor’s note: Many of the issues discussed in this two-part post will be further examined in upcoming responses on this blog to “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” published in The Public Historian (38.1)  See this introductory post about the TPH issue.

When I told a co-worker that I was headed home to New Jersey for the holidays and thinking of seeing a Broadway show, she insisted that I check out Allegiance, the new Broadway musical about Japanese internment during World War II. Since August, I’ve been curator at a World War II and Holocaust museum in Georgia, so this history is particularly relevant to my current work. Seeing the show has made me think about how this kind of performance can reflect many of the questions public historians continually grapple with in presenting “difficult” histories: how to balance historical rigor with popular and emotional impact and the value of broadening awareness of a little-known past. I explore these issues in my two-part post.

The show, which just closed on February 14 after a four-month run, was created by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo, and Lorenzo Thione, and starred the venerable George Takei (Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu) along with Broadway notables, including Telly Leung and Lea Salonga. The show was inspired by the childhood experiences of Mr. Takei, who at age five was interned at Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas with his family in 1942. When his parents took a principled stand against an infamous allegiance questionnaire, the family was transferred to Tule Lake Segregation Center in California, where they remained for the duration of the war. Allegiance is inspired by George Takei’s life story, but it is a work of historical fiction.

Following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, 120,000 people of Japanese descent, mostly American citizens, were evicted from the US coasts after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and relocated to ten camps in seven states. On the show’s website and in literature distributed along with the Playbill, Takei frames the importance of the story in the contemporary political landscape: “I hear echoes of the past, with politicians once again stoking public fears about whole groups of people, and calling for databases, IDs, and even internment camps as solutions. These worrisome developments only strengthen my resolve to keep telling our story and remembering the past so we do not repeat it.”

Takei notes that this is a little-known episode in US history, and a recent review of the Georgia Performance Standards for Social Studies reminds me why. In Georgia, as in many states, students are introduced to the history of World War II for the first time in fifth grade. Here, fifth graders are expected to cover German and Japanese aggressions, major events and leaders of the war, changing roles for women and blacks, and the formation of the United Nations. But, although they are introduced to the Holocaust, Japanese internment is not found in the curriculum, laying the basis for a clean dichotomy between the “evil” Axis and the “good” Allies (at least on the domestic front). I would be the first to admit that there is a difference in scope and kind between the Holocaust and the suspension of civil liberties that took place in the US and other allied nations during World War II. But similar fears and prejudices drove the actions that led to both. Students in Georgia learn about Japanese internment in high school for the first time: “Examine Roosevelt’s use of executive powers including the integration of defense industries and the internment of Japanese-Americans.”

Richard Harker, the Education Director at the Museum of History and Holocaust Education where I work, has noted the difficulty we’ve had in placing our traveling exhibit on the experience of Japanese Americans during the war in some elementary and middle schools. The exhibit is one of our more popular overall, but K-12 students and their teachers are the primary audience for our on-site and traveling exhibits, and our interactions with teachers reinforce the sentiment that they feel increasingly bound by time and content constraints imposed by the state performance standards. Richard told me that the elementary and middle school teachers he speaks with don’t want to borrow or use the (free) exhibit simply because it doesn’t hit their content standards..

In New Jersey, where I grew up, Japanese internment was part of the 5th grade social studies curriculum (although it isn’t anymore). We read Journey to Topaz, an age-appropriate novel about a young girl and her family who were evicted from their home in California and sent to Topaz Incarceration Camp in Utah. We also read Number the Stars and the Diary of Anne Frank, both addressing the experiences of Jews in Europe during the war. I remember my shock at learning for the first time that the US government incarcerated children and their families during World War II, but that knowledge helped me to understand other difficult episodes in US and world history.

Depending upon the age range of their intended audience, public historians and creators of popular history may assume some baseline knowledge of the subject matter in their “general audience.” Thinking about the timing of learning difficult history for the first time has led me to reconsider the role of the story of Japanese internment in public history and popular culture. There are works of historical fiction, memoirs, and journalistic pieces that deal with the topic, including Journey to Topaz, Farewell to Manzanar, and the recently written Infamy by journalist Richard Reeves. There are museum exhibits like ours and Uprooted, created by the Oregon Historical Society and curated by Morgen Young. The Smithsonian has maintained an online version of its initially controversial but ultimately popular 1987 exhibition, A More Perfect Union, since 2001. And there is the Densho digital archive, from which the creators of Allegiance drew most of their factual details.

Where in this universe of journalism, literature, and museum exhibits does a Broadway musical fit? Is a musical a form of public history? I consider these questions more directly in my follow-up post next week.

~Adina Langer is the curator of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University. You can follow her on Twitter @artiflection or visit her on the web.

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