George Takei: An American Voice

Photo by Dave Nelson

A grateful and passionate George Takei took the stage in the Marriott Atrium Ballroom Sunday morning to answer questions from fans of all ages about “all things Takei.”  He began with a boisterous “Oh Myyy,” followed by a moment of reflection on the occasion of the 53rd anniversary of Star Trek and just what that meant. A television series that struggled to stay on the air became a major entertainment franchise because of the loyalty and passion of its fans. Takei was very intentional and deliberate in saying “thank you” to all. He was not only amazed by Star Treks longevity, the fact that “our children now play us,” but that the incredible support of the fans has given him a platform to be heard. “I have access because of you,” said Takei.

“I spent my childhood behind American barbed wire,” he said, “because we looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.” Takei was referring, of course, to the years he and his family spent in a Japanese internment camp, located far from his Los Angeles home, in the swamps of Arkansas. American citizens all (except for his dad), his family was caught up in the anti-Japanese fervor that swept across this nation in the wake of Japan’s attack. It became his “mission in life” to raise awareness among his fellow Americans of this history in order to keep it from ever happening again. Then his voice lowered: “Sadly, it is happening again along the southern border.”

Takei felt called to help the next generation of Americans understand the history of immigrants and the racism that has so often driven immigration policy at the national level. As a child he read comics, and those stories stayed with him. He concluded that he would share his story with the next generation of Americans through a comic; in this case a graphic memoir. Working with Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and illustrator Harmony Becker, Takei penned They Called Us Enemy, the story of the internment from the perspective of a 5-year-old child. His goal was to tell the truth of his experiences, as well as those of his parents. He illustrated the difference in perspectives by describing the feeling of living inside a camp surrounded by barbed wire, guard towers with machine guns pointed at them, and huge flood lights that followed your every move at night. While the young Takei appreciated the guards lighting his way to the latrine, his parents saw the lights as invasive, humiliating, and degrading.

Before 1952, Asian Americans could not become naturalized citizens. When legislation passed allowing it, his father jumped at the opportunity to become a citizen. He had the books and studied daily in preparation for the citizenship exam. Takei asked his father why? Why study so hard to become a citizen, after everything the nation had done to him? Echoing his father, and speaking to Americans young and old, Takei referred to the United States as a nation of ideals and principles that are “noble.” Moreover, this nation is a “people’s democracy” and while the people made this a great nation, and accomplished great things, they are still fallible. Franklin Roosevelt was a great President who, for all he achieved in the 1930s, got swept up in fear and made a mistake. In a people’s democracy though, “people can rectify that.”

Takei’s also taken his American story to the stage in Allegiance, which he began working on in 2009. Originally premiering in the Old Globe theater in San Diego, where it set box office records, the musical found its way to Broadway where it ran through February 2016. An advocate as well on LGBTQ issues, when asked about other Broadway productions that he would recommend, Takei heaped high praise on The Prom, the musical that tells the tale of a lesbian high school student who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom. Though the production has closed it will begin a national tour in February 2021.

Takei did have an opportunity during the session to reminisce about his days on the original series. About a month before shooting was scheduled to begin on an episode entitled Naked Time, a writer told him that the script called on him to terrorize the crew with a samurai sword. Takei, a huge fan of the fight sequences in Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood in which Robin (Flynn) fights the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Basil Rathbone), asked if he could instead use a fencing foil. When the writer asked if he could fence Takei, like any good actor, replied with an enthusiastic yes! He then had to scurry to the yellow pages and engage a fencing instructor. He found a school directed by a Mr. Faulkner. As it turns out, Faulkner choreographed the fight scene in Robin Hood between Flynn and Rathbone. Even more, Faulkner served as Rathbone’s stand in for the fight. So Takei got to learn to fence by the very man who shaped the movie fight that Takei so dearly loved.

As the hour ended and Takei thanked the fans one more time, they in turn thanked him with a huge cheer and a standing ovation. Their time together had been powerful, poignant, at times deadly serious, but also filled with moments of laughter and warmth. The hour was not just a celebration of Sulu and Star Trek, but of this nation and her people; of what we are, and what we can be.

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