We pledge Allegiance to George Takei — the Star Trek star and activist visits Clearwater Saturday night

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click to enlarge BLOSSOMING MEMORIES: George Takei as Ojii-san in the world premiere of Allegiance — A New American Musical. - Henry DiRocco
Henry DiRocco
BLOSSOMING MEMORIES: George Takei as Ojii-san in the world premiere of Allegiance — A New American Musical.

An Evening with George Takei The St. Pete/Clearwater Film Commission presents the Star Trek star, activist and social networking celeb for a live guest appearance and promotional video. 7-10 p.m. at Sullivan Studios, 11286 47th St. N. Clearwater, $25, pinellascvb.com.

It's not often that a celeb comes across as so simultaneously gracious, amusing, well-spoken and utterly uplifting as George Takei. During a phone interview this afternoon with CL, Takei was neither put out nor slavish to any talking points.

At first, things were a little touch and go. I was given the wrong time for the interview. I double-checked the email message confirming our interview, which said we were scheduled for 3:40, but, according Takei and his husband/manager, Brad, it was really supposed to be at 2:30 p.m. Luckily I had my phone by me when I got a call from Brad Takei. A surreally familiar feeling came over me as I had recently watched the documentary To Be Takei. I felt like I landed in a sequel. If you saw the documentary, you would understand why. Brad, George's husband, often spoke with a somewhat nervous, concerned tone of voice. Suddenly I was on the receiving end of his concern, but to his credit, Brad was very understanding of the fact that I was given incorrect information while he urged me to make haste with the phone call.

As instructed, I called George Takei's hotel in Boca Raton, his stop before visiting Clearwater this weekend. He asked me about my last name, enunciating Gahrrreesto with a succinctly rolled "r." Takei's personalized approach immediately set me at ease. I told him that my older brothers Joe and Nicky introduced me to the original show and said they were  "classy," and offered kind words when I mentioned that the younger of the the two, Nick, had passed away last year at 53. The 77-year-old star also asked about where I worked, musing on the contradiction between being "Creative" and "Loafing."

Takei is arriving here the weekend of the TIGLFF — the same night as John Waters perhaps he'd visit Waters' Mondo Trasho party after his appearance but highly doubtful (but wouldn't that be amazing) — because To Be Takei screened at TIGLFF pre-fest film event at freeFall Theatre but George and Brad couldn't attend the screening.

Later in an email, Brad wrote: "George and I are thrilled that To Be Takei was screened at the Tampa International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Obviously, this part of Florida is the center of the universe this weekend!"

A touching and amusingly edited documentary (with setups and segues reminiscent of 1997's Trekkies), To Be Takei covers Takei's childhood in Japanese internment camps, his coming out, his activism and marriage to Brad in 2008, and, of course, highlights from his acting career. 

Takei says his biggest passion right now— his "legacy" project — is the theatrical musical production he's starring in, inspired by real-life experiences in Japanese internment camps. The play's press describes Allegiance – A New American Musical as "an epic story of family, love and patriotism" begins 60 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when a chance meeting spurs World War II veteran Sam Kimura (Takei) to remember his family's relocation from their California farm to the Heart Mountain internment camp. Its name inspired by the bitter irony of camp schoolchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while incarcerated, Allegiance premiered in San Diego in 2012 and was held over in an extended run, and and earned some critical praise. The play co-stars Telly Leung from Godspell and Glee, and Lea Salonga, Tony Award winner for Miss Saigon

Here's the rest of our conversation (for the most part): 

CL: Are you still hoping to premiere Allegiance on Broadway?

Takei: "We're waiting to get a Broadway theater. Unfortunately — fortunately for Broadway — every theater is booked up, many of them successfully, and some of them are weak, so we're hovering like vultures waiting to take over their nests."

I imagine you'll tour the show after you premiere it on Broadway. Hope it comes here!

Come out to New York and give yourself a vacation and you'll have a good time, and see Allegiance while you're there.

It's been a while since I've been there — I'm overdue for a visit. Would love to come see it.

Good, good, good! ... But don't come too early. Wait until we're rehearsed and ready in a Broadway theater.  ... The music in it is glorious. The composer Jay Kuo is fluent in so many music languages. He also does heartbreaking, soaring love songs, and music that captures the essence of a Japanese folk tune. He's really a remarkably gifted guy.

I'm glad that you have that to look forward to ... 

... To being creative and not loafing!

You were young when your family was sent to the internment camp. How much of it do you remember?

I had just turned 5. Three or four weeks after that, one morning our parents got me, my brother and baby sister up early and were hurriedly dressed us and were busy packing. My brother and I looked out the living room window and saw two soldiers with bayonets on their rifles shouting at the sun — I still remember that — marching up the driveway, stomping to the front porch, and banging on the front door. My father answered the door, and literally at gunpoint, we were ordered out of our home. ... We went out on the driveway, waiting for my mom. She took a long time and came out with my sister — she was an infant, not even a year old — on one arm and a duffel bag in another, and tears were streaming down her face. A 5-year-old boy will never forget that traumatic morning. 

How old were you when your family was released? 

I was almost 9 when the war ended and we were released. ... You know we were literally penniless; the government took everything — and my father used to say, "They took my business; they took our home; they took our freedom; the one thing I'm not going to give them is my dignity" — and when we came back to Los Angeles, because we really had nothing, our first home was on skid row in downtown Los Angeles, and that was traumatic to us. ... First of all, the smell of the place, the smell of urine everywhere, on the street, in the hallway, everywhere we went. And derelicts, and drunkards and lunatics. All were leaning on the wall, were staggering around. One drunk actually collapsed and barfed on the sidewalk right in front of us. ... My baby sister shrieked. She said to our mother, "Mama, let's go home," meaning behind the barbed wire fence ...

How were you treated once you were back in school?

The understanding of having been seen as the enemy — potential spies, saboteurs, espionage agents, you know — made for a completely different climate were coming back to. One of my first teachers called me "The Little Jap Boy," which stunk. I hated that teacher! And she hated me. When I raised my hand, she'd ignore me and look the other way, so I stopped raising my hand. And then I had a wonderful teacher who cast me in my first acting role, in a Thanksgiving pageant. She cast me as the Indian chief that greets the pilgrims. My dialogue was in what she said was an Indian language. I'm sure it was a made-up language, but I still, to this day to this day remember what I said when the pilgrims when they came: Yo hay, Yo hay, mi to kolanohompu o nichi nichoti. I worked on it so hard. I loved it so much. I never forgot my line!

Did you ever Google it to see if it really was an Indian language?

[Laughs heartily] That never occurred to me!

Your time in internment camps must have left you with a more profound compassion for those whose human rights are stripped from them.  

Because I was so young then ... I still remember the sentry tower and the machine guns pointed at us. I remember the searchlight that followed us when I made the night runs from the barracks to the latrine. My feeling was that it was nice that they lit the way for me to pee. It was from a child's vantage point. For my parents, it was the most chaotic, humiliating, degrading and enraging experience. Children are amazingly adaptable. What would be grotesquely abnormal began my normality in a barbed-wire encampment. I got used to lining up to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall or going with my father to bathe in the master shower. I started school, and we began every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed-wire fences and the sentry tower right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words, "with liberty and justice for all." 

You were too young to question it ...

I was too young. It wasn't until long after we were released, when I became a teenager, that I couldn't quite reconcile what I was reading in my history and civics books about the ideals of America — all men are created equal; all men are endowed with the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. All that and what I knew to be my childhood imprisonment. I had many, many long conversations with my father after dinner about the internment. I was inspired by the shining, ringing words of Dr. Martin Luther King — in fact, I was involved with the Civil Rights movement — I challenged my father on what happened to us. I said I would organize all my friends and we would have demonstrated in front of the state building. He answered, "Well, stop and think: If I were single, I might have done that, but I was responsible for you, your sister, your brother and your mother. What do you think would have happened to all of you if I were going downtown and protesting? They were aiming guns at us. I understood what he was talking about, but he also gave me a deep understanding of our democracy. He said, our democracy is the people's democracy. It's as great as what people can be, but it's as fallible as people are. ... He was an amazing man because he was the one who suffered the pain and the anguish and said we have to be engaged and participate in the process. ... I didn't volunteer but my father volunteered me to work for the Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign. He was somebody to us who represented the ideals of democracy. ... I was involved in other senatorial and gubernatorial, Los Angeles mayoral campaigns. During the Vietnam War I was involved in the peace movement, and during the '70s, I was active in the movement to get an apology for the imprisonment of Japanese Americans, which was unconstitutional. ... My father died before [restitution was declared in 1988) we got it, in 1979, and never received his redress. 

You're still working toward marriage equality for all Americans?

Marriage equality only prevails in 19 states. Well, you know how I talked about pledging allegiance as a child back when I was incarcerated.  Back then and I still do today, I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America — United States, not 19 states! We're a patchwork. Someone might get married in New York but then their job might take them to Texas, where the marriage is nullified. That's not fair. And so we are making sure that we have the United States of America. Marriage in one state will be recognized by every state in the union, and I think it's going to happen within the next two years. ... The new Supreme Court session is beginning in October ...

What are you doing to promote awareness?

I'm making speeches across the country!

You've become a guru of social networking, what advice do you have for young people growing up in the Information Age? 

Most people become slaves to their little iPhones. I see people having dinner at restaurants — I take them to be out on dates — and their just staring at their phones. People's whole lives are wrapped up in their tiny advice. ... People need to relate to each other, first of all. And to relate to them, you have to have an idea who are and what your own identity is. So many young people don't have their identities formed on their own but  formed for them by influences on the Internet. I think that's sad. To get through life, you have to be confident, and to be confident, you have to know who are. 

Do people assume you just live on the Internet? Do you have to correct them a little bit?

[Laughs] Yes. What's important with a Facebook or Twitter account is reliability of being there. I stockpile my posts and have a team of interns that do the posting for me. 

Which actors do you wish you could work with?

Ben Affleck, George Clooney — he's so debonair and handsome — Cate Blanchett and, of course, Meryl Streep.

Any directors?

You know I attended UCLA at the same time as Francis Ford Coppola; we were in the same class. We worked in student productions together but he has yet to cast me in any of his films.

Is this going to be your first time in St. Pete-Clearwater?

Yes. I've been to Star Trek Conventions in Tampa, but not in St. Petersburg or Clearwater. We'll have to ask the Trekkies to host a convention on that side of the Bay next time! 

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