Best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu, the helmsman on the Starship Enterprise on the famed TV series “Star Trek,” frequent Chicago visitor George Takei is heading back to town this week to talk about something far more serious — and extremely close to his heart.
The actor and activist will be the featured speaker Thursday at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport for “An Evening with George Takei,” focusing on the forced imprisonment of his Japanese-American family in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I do ‘Star Trek’ conventions, and Chicago is a hotbed of ‘Star Trek’ fandom,” Takei said with a laugh. “I have been there many, many times for that, but I also go to Chicago frequently on my own. I go to catch a lot of plays, since I’m a big theater lover. I love to go to the Goodman and the other wonderful theaters you have. Chicago is such a vibrant theater town. You do a lot of very imaginative, original theater there.”
His sold-out Athenaeum appearance is tied to “Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties,” an exhibition at the Alphawood Gallery, 2401 N. Halsted. As a young child, Takei was incarcerated with his family, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced imprisonment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.
Decades later, Takei made his Broadway debut in 2015 in his first musical, “Allegiance,” inspired by his wartime experiences. At the Athenaeum, brief selections from “Allegiance” will be performed by Chicago actors, arranged by Robert Ollis, the music director of Pride Films & Plays.
Even more than seven decades later, one can sense the quiet anger in Takei’s voice as he recalls being rounded up in 1942 and forced to live in an internment camp.
“We were Americans. My mother was born in Sacramento [California], my father was a San Franciscan. They met and married in Los Angeles. My siblings and I were also born here. We were Americans, and yet, simply because of our ancestry we were summarily rounded up in the name of national security. Frankly, it was actually national insecurity that did that.”
Takei sees a strong connection to issues facing Muslim-Americans today. “You’d think we would have learned from that experience. But now today, another president signs another executive order with the same kind of sweeping characterizations of a whole group of people. This time Trump is using their faith to justify signing that order in the name of national security.”
One positive sign, the actor said, is that after Donald Trump ordered his Muslim travel ban, “massive numbers of people rushed to protest this — and supported the people trying to come into the country legally. I find that to be something of a silver lining to a very dark cloud — proof that America has changed. Seventy-five years ago there was nothing but hate and hysteria.”
A former “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant, Takei decided he would use his professional connection to Trump in 2015 to both promote “Allegiance” and sway the candidate’s opinion.
“I extended a personal invitation to Donald to come and see ‘Allegiance.’ It’s about an important chapter of American history for him to know something about. … We got an aisle seat in the orchestra section and put a sign on it: ‘This seat reserved for Mr. Donald Trump,’ ” Takei said.
“Of course, he never showed, but during intermission at each performance, people would come and hunker down by that sign and take selfies with it. They would then post them all over social media. I’m sure it helped ticket sales, but I’d have rather not had that cloud of him not coming — I’d wish he had seen the show and perhaps thought about it.”
Takei’s views dovetail with the values of “Star Trek,” namely that “it is better to tap into the unique talents a variety of individuals can bring to a team of people,” he said.
“It was a utopian society we projected on ‘Star Trek.’ Hopefully, we are learning to move in that direction. I know there are a few who retrogress backward — and lately some have retrogressed greatly and very violently, as we saw in Charlottesville.
“However, in ‘Allegiance’ we have a song that focuses on hopefulness along those lines. The title is ‘Ishi Kara Ishi.’ In English it’s ‘Stone By Stone.’ The point is, we can move mountains, even if it is in small ways — stone by stone.”