- Empire of the Son
- Written by
- Tetsuro Shigematsu
- Directed by
- Richard Wolfe
- Tetsuro Shigematsu
- Factory Theatre
- Runs Until
- Sunday, January 29, 2017
Empire of the Son, an autobiographical one-man show by former CBC broadcaster Tetsuro Shigematsu, tells a story familiar to theatre audiences.
The charming West Coast hit, a production of the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre, is about a first-generation Canadian's fraught relationship with an immigrant parent – an artistic son coming to terms with his hard-shelled father. Those are the subjects of so many dramas, homegrown or otherwise, and yet there's something original and disarming about the way Shigematsu presents his relationship with his late father, also a broadcaster, born in Japan and a witness to the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima in 1945.
While there are some clever visual elements to his show, it's Shigematsu's radio voice, larger than life, and the inclusion of recordings of his father's, postlife, that lends Empire of the Son its unusual tone, slightly distanced and yet extremely intimate – and easy to relate to.
Perhaps, like me, you'll leave thinking that, actually, all parents seem as if they are from other countries to their children – as surely as all eventually leave us for what another stage son called the undiscovered country.
While Tetsuro Shigematsu is on stage for the entire show, Akira Shigematsu, his father, appears to us in various forms, not just through recorded audio, but letters and pictures and his son's impersonation of him. Indeed, the younger Shigematsu – who cannily admits early on that he never went to acting school – acts out a few arguments at different ages.
"My son makes fun of my accent for a living," says the father.
"Come on, Dad," replies the son. "Do you really think this is a living? This is theatre."
Shigematsu generally avoids a straightforward narrative telling of either his life or his father's – we get it all in fragments that jump back and forth in time. He describes Akira Shigematsu as a Forrest Gump figure – his career, first with the BBC World Service, leading him to have tea with the Queen, then to be on hand when Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday to JFK and eventually to bring his family to Canada when Britain proved too expensive with the birth of Tetsuro and his twin sister. ("I wasn't devastated," his mother says, when Tetsuro asks what she felt about the unexpected pregnancy.)
In Montreal, the elder Shigematsu hosted a shortwave-radio program called Canada No Wadai that on occasion brought him bags full of fan mail from Japan, but cuts to the CBC under Brian Mulroney meant he ended his career working in the mail room, blocking out his colleagues' chatter with a big pair of yellow headphones.
Tetsuro Shigematsu had a career with CBC Radio as well – the first person of colour to host a daily national radio program in Canada, when he succeeded Bill Richardson on The Roundup in 2004. We get glimpses of what that was like, but our narrator keeps the audience at arm's length from himself for the most part, with self-effacing jokes.
His voice is, in the manner of many radio hosts, bizarre to hear coming out of the mouth of a real-life person, a verbal version of the ostentatious, curlicue mustache that he sports. Over all, however, he has an understated physical presence and moves calmly about the stage setting up cameras while he speaks. Indeed, Empire of the Son can, at times, feel like a podcast on stage.
The cameras in question are aimed at miniatures that then appear blown up on a screen behind Shigematsu, and evoke the bathroom where he bathed with his family in the Japanese tradition until a classmate made him feel self-conscious about it, or, hauntingly, the atom bomb exploding. At times, Shigematsu inserts his fingers into the shot to represent himself and his father, having, for instance, a fight about skateboarding in the 1980s – a charming intermedial theatrical technique recently employed on bigger stages by Cirque du Soleil and the Belgian artists Michèle Anne De Mey and Jaco van Dormael.
The entire production is elegantly and effectively directed by Richard Wolfe. The writing still feels like it could use another draft, however – the fragmentary nature of the writing mostly appealing, but the segues sometimes feeling a bit forced and the ending scattered.
Likewise, Empire of the Son could use a less concocted framing device. Shigematsu tells us that he has not cried since he was a child, and that perhaps the presence of an audience while he talks about his father might help him do so tonight.
The few false notes aside, however, it will be hard for anyone to avoid shedding a couple of tears at this lovely, low-key stage memoir.
Empire of the Son continues at Factory Theatre to Jan. 29