“Oh myyy,” indeed. George Takei gained our rapt attention last night at Butler, shining light upon a “dark chapter in our history" — the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. We know Takei as a consummate actor and social media phenomenon. What the audience learned first hand at Clowes Hall was how and why Takei became an activist for social justice causes.
Takei was four years old in 1942 when he was taken from his Los Angeles home to a desolate camp in Rohwer, Arkansas. Journeying back to his early years, Takei cited his father’s unwavering faith in “liberty and justice for all” as his touchstone toward pursuing a life of quality. We can read Takei’s compelling 1994 autobiography, To the Stars, and learn the facts of his life — yet to see the pain of memory on his face, to feel the agony in his voice, brought home the importance of that shameful era in American history.
In his talk, Takei emphasized the danger of historical amnesia, which can permit us to act counter to the ideals that supposedly set the United States of America apart from other nations. He described the injustices not so much to wag a finger in our faces, but as a cautionary talk. Not to know the consequences of past actions allows us to rely on knee-jerk decisions in times of crisis.
When Takei described the “Loyalty Questionnaire” every Japanese American had to answer, I was reminded of my own dark era in the mid-1950s, when college students were required to sign a loyalty oath because the fear of Communism paralyzed rational thinking.
With his decision to pursue a career in acting, Takei understood his larger responsibility as a representative of his heritage as a Japanese American. He played as a ‘good guy’ to counter perceived notions of people of Asian decent. He was forthright as a citizen-activist, even when doing so could harm his own career and his ‘image.’
Takei replied to a question about the role of an ordinary person with a summary of his own path, largely inspired by his father. “We should always be actively involved to make the situation better," he said. "That is American Democracy. We should take advantage of being an active, involved citizen. Always be actively engaged.”
A sense of humor and impeccable timing marked “a lecture” delivered without a script or notes. Takei concluded by inviting us all to attend his newest venture, Allegiance, a musical about Japanese-Americans in United States internment camps during World War II. Performances begin on Broadway in October 2015. “I’ll see you backstage," he said. Of course, we feel compelled to be there.
Takei’s books include To the Stars, Oh myyy!, There Goes the Internet and Lions and Tigers and Bears: The Internet Strikes Back. The film To Be Takei is available on DVD.