George Takei became a sci-fi legend as Lt. Sulu on TV’s classic Star Trek series from 1966 to 1969. Nearly 40 years later, he became an icon of a different kind when he proton-torpedoed the closet door and came out as gay in 2005.
Since then he’s worked tirelessly to further LGBT civil rights as well as to create awareness of social injustice for other groups by telling the story of how he and his family experienced unjust internment with 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In an exclusive interview with The Advocate, he reveals how meeting composer Jay Kuo and writer-producer Lorenzo Thione led to creating the current Broadway musical based on the years he spent in internment camps, Allegiance, and his newfound popularity as a social media superstar.
The Advocate: How did you first meet Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione?
George Takei: We were meant to meet. My husband, Brad, and I are bicoastal, and when we’re in New York, we spend almost every night in the theater. We went to see Forbidden Broadway and there were two guys sitting in front of us. Jay recognized my voice and turned around and we started chatting.
The next night we saw In the Heights and I saw two arms waving at us from down the row. It was Jay and Lorenzo. Near the end of the first act, the father sings a song that reminded me of my father’s anguish about having to swear allegiance to the U.S. and forswear his loyalty to Japan, which landed our family in the Japanese internment camp during World War II.
I’m a big weeper, and during intermission Jay and Lorenzo saw me wiping my face. I told them about my childhood experience, and that was the seed of Allegiance.
How did your social media presence begin?
I had a website and a blog aimed at my Star Trek sci-fi geeks and nerds. But when we started developing Allegiance, we knew that a good part of America was not aware of the internment camp period, and the second challenge was to let people know we were developing a musical about it.
Since Lorenzo is an Internet genius, we launched my Facebook and Twitter presence — and fortunately I have that visionary sci-fi background as well. I now have 9.4 million Facebook fans and 2 million Twitter followers. It’s helped on many levels, not just to build an audience for Allegiance. I’ve been a social and political activist since my 20s, speaking across the world about the internment camps — and more recently about LGBT rights.
I couldn’t do eight shows a week plus all my promotional activities and manage all the social media myself. We started with a couple of interns, and now Team Takei includes eight people.
Above: Lea Salonga as Kei Kimura, Telly Leung as Sammy Kimura, George Takei as Ojii-san, and Paul Nakauchi as Tatsuo Kimura in the premiere of Allegiance - A New American Musical at the Old Globe Theatre, before its Broadway run.
What were some of the most memorable aspects of performing Allegiance on Broadway?
There were many powerful moments, but on opening night, I realized that telling this story, which is still so little-known, was a groundbreaking event on Broadway. And this story from 75 years ago is so vibrantly relevant to our times today.
We have presidential candidates still making broad statements about Mexicans and Muslims. Donald Trump seems to think that a small, radical, crazy faction of Muslims represents all Muslims. The post-9/11 hysteria against Muslims is exactly the same as the anti-Japanese hysteria after Pearl Harbor.
The same is true of homophobic attitudes toward LGBT people. It’s a lack of understanding of who we are as people. We’re a diverse spectrum of Americans — we’re brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers.
Tell me about the contest to win a dinner with you, and an evening with Allegiance and the cast, to benefit Inspire Change Broadway.
I’ve been a theater lover since I was in junior high, but young students have limited means to see live theater since it’s becoming more and more expensive. That’s cutting out a whole spectrum of young people who may become our next theatre makers. Inspire Change subsidizes theater tickets and prepares teachers and students in junior high and high school for experiencing live theater in New York. We hope to develop it in California and other places as well.
As Allegiance concludes its Broadway run February 14, what’s next for you?
Allegiance is not over yet. We’re exploring avenues for continuing it in other cities. I’ll be continuing my speaking engagements, and since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, that means I’ll be appearing at lots of conventions, including a big one in Germany.
Speaking of Star Trek conventions, what did you think of Galaxy Quest, the 1999 film that spoofed a Star Trek-like cast embarking on a real space adventure?
It was an amazingly accurate documentary.