In the late '60s, George Takei played USS Enterprise helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu in a little show called "Star Trek." What followed were decades of "Trek" conventions, related projects and questions about what William Shatner was really like.
However "Star Trek" only scratches Takei's surface. Over the decades he has worked consistently in film, TV and theater. He has also done voiceover work, his baritone booming in everything from symphonic narration to episodes of "The Simpsons."
Born in East L.A., Takei is also witness to, and a participant in, the evolution of Downtown Los Angeles over the last six decades. He has been involved in politics and cultural institutions, with positions in government committees and on museum boards. He even ran for (but lost) a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1973.
Though Takei has been active in the Little Tokyo-based theater organization East West Players (EWP) for 25 years, he has not appeared in an EWP production until now. On Oct. 26, he takes the lead in Equus, British playwright Peter Shaffer's twisted tale of a psychiatrist named Martin Dysart and his disturbed patient, a teen in trouble for poking the eyes out of horses. Los Angeles Downtown News spoke with Takei about his role, about being sent to a World War II internment camp, and his Angeleno activism.
Los Angeles Downtown News: Tell me about your involvement with East West Players.
George Takei: Beulah Quo and I were the co-chairs of fundraising to move East West Players into this building. The theater moved here in 1998. It was founded in a church basement in Silver Lake, and then moved to a tiny 99-seat house on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was there for the longest time, winning awards and accolades. We felt that it needed to be moved into a larger, mid-sized venue.
I happened to be a preservationist. I was on the board of the Los Angeles Conservancy, and we found this building that was abandoned and crumbling. There's a bit of history here. When internment came down, they wanted to assemble us in front of federal buildings, but some of the community said, "We're not criminals. At least assemble us in front of our religious structures." So the Christians were assembled in front of this building, and the Buddhists were assembled on Central Avenue, in front of the temple. Our family was Buddhist.
Q: What do you remember about internment?
A: I still remember the day that soldiers came to our door to order us out of there. I was 5 years old. By that time, we had moved to the Wilshire district, right near Bullocks Wilshire.
From there we were taken to the horse stables of Santa Anita racetrack. I was very young, but I still remember how scary it was. In retrospect I think of my parents, and how they must have felt, to lose everything. Your business, your home, your freedom, and to take your young children and move them to a horse stable.
They housed us there for about three months because the camps weren't built yet. Then we were taken to the swamps of Arkansas. I remember that long train ride from L.A. across the southwest. Boring, day after day after day. We arrived at a camp called Rohwer; my memories from there are fun memories - catching pollywogs in the creek and seeing them sprout legs and become frogs. In the wintertime it snowed, and for this Southern California kid, it was magical to see everything covered in white.
I also remember the guard towers, the barbed wire fence, and the machine guns. They became a normal part of my landscape. What would be abnormal in normal times became my normality.
Lining up three times a day to eat in a noisy mess hall became normal. Going with my father to a communal shower and bathing with other people. Going to school in a black tarpaper barrack. Pledging allegiance to the flag, with a barbed wire fence and a guard tower visible right outside the window. Saying "With liberty and justice for all," too young to realize the irony of what I was saying.
Q: What was coming back like?
A: That was the most traumatic part of internment. Because at that time, housing was difficult, and jobs were difficult. The first job my father was able to get was as a dishwasher in a Chinatown restaurant. The first home was on Wall Street, and for us, that was traumatizing, because of the stench, the smell. We had never seen people like that, they would fall down and barf right there. My little sister said, "Mom let's go home." Meaning back beyond the barbed wire, because Wall Street was so horrible.
Q: What do you think of Downtown's development, as you've seen it evolve?
A: I'm an urbanist. I think it's very important that there be a heart to a city, which Downtown is. The exciting thing about being an Angeleno is, all these other great cities - and I've lived in New York both as a struggling young actor and later, with a condo there - are finished. They're completed. L.A. is still a city that we can participate in giving shape and form to.
Q: How come you've never acted in an EWP production until now?
A: I'm a civic busybody and I've been blessed with an active career. It is something of a sacrificial commitment to do a play, and I was involved in civic activities, investment things, career, "Star Trek" conventions. To do theater you need to block off a hunk of time. Yes, I was tempted many times. But when [EWP Producing Artistic Director] Tim Dang called in April and asked me to consider doing Dysart - I've seen this play in England, and I was blown away by it then - I said, let me look at my calendar. It is such a dimensioned, full, bloody, tortured role. It's great actor bait, and Tim dangled it in front of me.
Q: How constant a factor is "Star Trek" in your life?
A: It is a part of my life. I ceased fighting it. Some of my colleagues didn't.
Q: What does the association with that show mean to you now?
A: "Star Trek" is a show that had a vision about a future that was positive. It dealt with thoughtful issues, and to be associated with a show like that as opposed to some brainless action thing or comedy, I'm proud of it. But I think it's a double-edged sword. We're going to benefit from "Star Trek" here; tickets have been selling to fans who want to come see me. There's that side. There are also very unimaginative producers and casting people who can't see you in any other character other than in sci-fi.
Q: You're so stately and poised. What's it like to play this dark, brooding role?
A: That's why we're actors. Hopefully I'll be able to persuade you to believe I'm this very constrained but emotionally turbulent character on stage, this man who comes to envy the fiery passion of this very demented boy, which is what he lacks. I know that "Star Trek" fans might come, but I hope with that first speech, I'll be able to persuade them to forget George Takei and see Martin Dysart.
Equus is at the David Henry Hwang Theater through Dec. 4, 120 Judge John Aiso St., (213) 625-7000 or eastwestplayers.org.
Contact Kristin Friedrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.
page 13, 10/24/2005
© Los Angeles Downtown News. Reprinting items retrieved from the archives are for personal use only. They may not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission of the Los Angeles Downtown News. If you would like to redistribute anything from the Los Angeles Downtown News Archives, please call our permissions department at (213) 481-1448.