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Allegiance, with George Takei & Lea Salonga

In November, I told my wife that we would go see Allegiance for her birthday. She wasn’t so much interested in the show for the sake of the story, but because she’s a big fan of Lea Salonga and Miss Saigon. Miss Saigon hasn’t played in New York City since we’ve been here, but Lea has a starring role in Allegiance. As a bonus, George Takei stars in the play as well and I’ve really enjoyed him as an actor and as a person since I first saw him in Star Trek as a kid. His Facebook account is hilarious.

Allegiance || First Look

I was told later that Allegiance was based on Takei’s childhood. He actually went through a Japanese internment camp during World War II. We really did go into the show blind, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying the story or the actors’ performances. The parts were well played. Everyone knew their lines. There was no stuttering. The dancing scenes were a lot of fun. The music was good.

I think what I enjoyed most about the show was the way it attempted to address complex ideas of identity, belonging and citizenship. Questions 27 and 28 of a loyalty questionnaire given to Japanese internees played a prominent role in the play. The audience is told what those questions are, but I felt like there should have been more explanation about why answering “yes” to those two questions was such a huge moral dilemma for many Japanese-Americans. Having the main character’s father say it impinges Japanese “honor” did not really convey the complexity of being singled out as a group and being made to affirm loyalty to the United States when one was already an American by birth and upbringing. You kind of pick up on it throughout the play, but only if you’re really paying attention. I suppose one doesn’t go to a play to be mindlessly entertained, though. It’s supposed to be thought provoking.

Not to take away from the suffering of Japanese-Americans during World War II, but I was reminded of the problems that many Muslim-Americans are facing today. They are being singled out as a group and subjected to additional scrutiny. Their loyalty, or allegiance to the United States, is questioned in the same way that Japanese-Americans’ allegiance to the United States was questioned.

The fact that Muslim Americans weren’t rounded up and placed in internment camps shows that most of us learned something from our previous mistakes, or at least the people who can make those sorts of decisions learned something. But, we’re walking on a thin line. It wouldn’t be hard for the balance to shift and to wake up one day and find people being deported to concentration/internment camps again. I mean, look at how popular Trump is with Republican voters. Sometimes the guy says something that makes sense, but even a monkey could type a coherent sentence if he sits in front of a keyboard long enough. Trump represents the worst of our past and the desire of some to return to a period of selective privilege that leaves everyone who isn’t a white male in second place at best.

Anyhow, coming back to the topic of this post, the play was excellent, thought provoking, a critical look at our past and relevant to contemporary affairs. I would recommend it to anyone interested in human drama, history, US politics, race relations, or just a good story.

The Longacre theater, where the play is shown, is a little cold. The seats are a little close together and they didn’t open the doors until 6:30 PM, meaning the line was still out the door at 7:00 PM when the curtain was supposed to go up. If you’re planning on going, show up around 6:15 PM to be at the front of the line.

Also, the concessions stand wasn’t impressive, but I haven’t been to a lot of plays so I don’t have a frame of reference and I imagine the audience is expected to be different from the one you find packed into a typical movie theater.

 

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College Papers History Undergraduate Work

The Olmecs and Potential African Influence

We’re covering research methodologies in my Introduction to Anthropology class right now, and to introduce us to a particular concept, which I’ll mention later, our professor had us read up on the Olmecs and then watch a video by a gentleman by the name of Dr. Van Sertima.

If you’re not familiar with the Olmecs, they were a civilization in Mesoamerica from roughly 1500 to 400 BCE and there’s a lot of controversy about whether or not they were a mother culture to the later Mesoamerican cultures, like the Toltecs and Mayans.  A lot of artifacts have been found, showing how the Olmecs’ culture diffused down and out into the other cultures, but nothing showing that the other civilizations’ cultures influenced the Olmecs in the same way.  You can read more about the Olmecs, and the “mother culture” / “sister culture” debate by clicking here, and by reading a New York Times article about it by clicking here, which closes by comparing the effect the Olmecs had on later Mesoamerican civilizations to the lasting effect Greek and Roman culture had on Western civilizations.

After reading up on the Olmecs, we were presented with the following video to watch:

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-3924842503305971166&hl=en&fs=true

The video is about 46 minutes long.  If you don’t want to watch it all, here’s the relevant information:

This video is a recording of a presentation given by Dr. Van Sertima, where he presents evidence that the Olmecs had contact with Africans.  He goes on to prove this theory by first showing that it was possible for Africans to reach Central America using ocean currents.  He stated that there have been numerous trips made on small boats, some without sails, that have safely made it across the Atlantic, so it is possible.  He talks about the similarity between the depictions of one of the Olmec gods and one of the gods of Egypt, who Africans would have also had contact with.  He also noted that Olmec pyramids had a base that matched the size of the base of the Giza pyramids, and that Olmec rulers took to wearing purple, which was popular among Egyptian nobility.  He also points out that some of the Olmec monumental heads (pictured below) have distinctly African features, and that the helmet the monumental head is wearing looks Egyptian in design.

Olmec monumental head.

Dr. Van Sertima stated that he had been working for years to get the scientific community to at least acknowledge the possibility that Africans and Olmecs had contacted each other at some point, but everyone gave him excuses about why it couldn’t possibly be true, including things as ridiculous as saying the stone head must have fallen over, causing the lips and nose to flatten out.  One of my favorite lines was when he said that every other civilization in the world was traveling and establishing trade routes, so why would the Africans be the only ones that were sitting around doing nothing?  My first thought was that they weren’t as developed.  In some cases, Africans still aren’t as developed as other countries today.  However, in my Art History class we had just covered Sub Saharan African art, and I remembered reading that there were advanced cities in what is now modern day Nigeria as early as around 500 BC, and that remnants of goods from as far away as China have been found there.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they went there to get them, but it does speak volumes for the level of trade and advanced culture they’d developed.

So, do I think Dr. Van Sertima is right?  Well, it’s definitely possible, but given how much he emphasizes that Egyptian cultural traits are evident in Olmec culture, rather than African, I’d say that it’s more likely an Egyptian ship with African slaves got blown off course, possibly caught in a current, and wound up in Olmec territory.  It’s possible that, at some point, Africans sailed to Central America, but if that were the case, why would they have left the Olmecs with Egyptian styles of royal dress (use of the color purple) and why would the Olmecs have adopted an Egyptian god, rather than an African one?  I could argue against that by asking why, if the Africans were only slaves, does the monument resemble an African?  But, maybe the Africans aboard the Egyptian ships doubled as warriors when they landed in Central America, and the Olmecs admired their apparent strength?  Anyway, it’s all speculation, but an interesting topic to speculate about!

After discussing these topics in class, our professor asked us what we can learn about anthropological study from Dr. Van Sertima’s methodologies.  The best answer was something Dr. Van Sertima said: “…history leaves its mark on everything.”  What does that mean?  Well, you can’t put all of your eggs in one basket and rely solely on documents and written records.  You have to think bigger.  Also, it’s important to remember that any written records you come across, including your own, will likely be biased, either consciously or unconsciously, and that you have to take that into account when trying to decipher past events from the evidence we have left to us.