Empire of the Son grabs at the heart : this is family
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes
& the human voice & people gathered together.
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)
From the footlights : Autobiographical shows that involve dying or dead parents are extremely difficult to pull off. Simply because the playwright is so close to their material. Thus being able to make their story come alive in some sort of universal sense without being mawkish or slightly irrelevant is truly a challenge.
And -- trite to observe -- families are unique unto themselves. So in my case when I challenged Dad why he and Mom brought five children into the world -- starting right after WWII began in Europe -- my father reached for his handkerchief. Fighting back a well-up of tears, he snuffled in protest : "Why is it a man can't seem to talk about his children without having to blow his nose first...?"
Quite the opposite case with Tetsuro Shigematsu's diary Empire of the Son, which is his ironic title about Shigematsu's Japan-born father, Akira. Not only did Akira not cry sentimentally over his son, he never found a way to tell Tetsuro outright that he loved him. Or his son him. This even though Akira had been a radio personality on both the BBC and the CBC in his time. And the fact Tetsuro was a CBC voice for a bit, too. Son's subtitle is : "Two generations of broadcasters and the radio silence between them." In a word, Son is Tetsuro's solo attempt to make sense of his childhood in the final year of his dad's life (Akira died September 18, 2015.) In the writing and performing of his material, Tetsuro hopes to overcome his own learned inability to cry.
How it's all put together : While outfront emotional honesty was one of my father's signature qualities, other cultures seem to prefer reserved stoicism instead : thinking strictly in stereotypes here, the classic English "stiff upper lip" jumps to mind, while some societies are thought inscrutable and others are seen as innately reticent.
Dad Akira was a youth who witnessed his neighbourhood in Kagoshima incinerated by Allied incendiary bombs in June, 1945. Later he would witness the aftermath of the horror of Hiroshima while passing through on a train. (Modestly, he occasioned his ensuing nausea to be from food poisoning, not atomic radiation sickness.) Emigrating to England, Tetsuro was born there before further migration to Canada for the family.
As noted, Akira did live radio for both the BBC and CBC : how is he not able to open his heart to his son the way Tetsuro'a son opens his heart to his Dad in a way Grandpa never could? The most compelling radio personalities (think CBC's Peter Gzowski or Jurgen Gothe or Shelagh Rogers) have always emoted, lived their empathy, embraced us unseen listeners heart-to-heart. For Akira such was apparently not possible mano a mano with his son. The public persona and the Dad were distinct personalities. Maybe akin to how we writers hide underneath our keyboards.
So it is stories that tell the story in Son. A granddaughter's apocalytpic phantasy nightmare woven into a grammar school story. A grandson's easy flippancy with Tetsuro that would have been utterly unimaginable with Akira. A camera focuses on miniature toys and other memory pieces and blows them up to assist in the telling of this tale -- a compelling visual effect.
What the show brings to the stage : Pauses, silences, word-gaps -- "Shiggy" as his website nicknames him -- employs these techniques both as dramatic Pinteresque style but also to give the audience pause. Pause to grasp that each of us has a personal and family apocalypse in our hearts that we need deal with, for better or worse. In fact, this piece is actually a universal story of the manchild and our inevitable struggles to escape the shadow of our fathers. The universal made personal, in other words.
Humour and irony and self-deprecation figure largely into this script by son whose middle name is what his dad calls him : Hugh. Dad prizes understatement. Having met the Queen, having been present when Marilyn Munroe slurred her way through "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to Jack Kennedy, he demurred : "But I was not the only one there...".
Not all men probably suffer the extent of estrangement and distance young Hugh the lippy skateboarder did with his dad. His estrangement was only overcome when Dad's Parkinson's and diabetes and strokes rendered him a 100 pound invalid whom Hugh would carry like a puppy to the loo for b.m.'s. While thankful, Dad all the while would protest "Gomen-nasai!" -- I am sorry, I am sorry! This is regret suffered in Japanese culture when an obligation is placed on others. Particularly an obligation occasioned by "mendo--naa" -- one's needy situation. Japanese suffer pain if they feel they are being troublesome or a bother to one's family or neighbours.
Best symbol of the show was the headset of hazard-yellow noise-canceling earphones Akira wore when he was demoted by the CBC due to program funding cuts by Brian Mulroney. From his prestigious announcer's job at CBC Montreal, his union seniority meant he would drift down to a lowly mail room clerk position. "Do not call me 'Akira!'" he shouted randomly at folks greeting him during his daily rounds lugging the mail cart. The miniature toy captured by camera depicting this fall from grace was the show's most poignant moment.
Who gonna like : A reprise of its successful sold-out 2015 run at the Cultch's 85-seat black box room known as the C-lab, the approximately 1,000 folks fortunate enough to have got their tickets for this year's also-pre-sold-out run will find much to laugh and wonder and remark upon in this unique one man slice-of-life show.
Regularly punching through the 4th wall to interact with patrons and his own family alike on opening night, Tetsuro makes this material engaging no question. Him sitting on the St. Paul's bed patting Dad's knee -- after his sisters had all-three actually climbed into bed together and caressed their ailing father -- this anecdote just about said it all about us men and our intimacy issues whether contemporary Japanese, Brit, Cascadian or throwback Cro Magnon.
Meanwhile the central conceit the playwright focuses on is the question of whether he will actually cry when Dad's ashes finally come home. (Currently his cadaver is being used for scientific research at UBC med school.) Whether big boys do cry (me, like my dad) or don't cry (Hugh, like his dad) is, at end, irrelevant. Carrying Dad to the loo hour by hour for weeks on end says more than a mere tear -- or even a total sobbing catharsis -- ever could, should, might or would. Love is doing. Love is now. Love as memory is a sad second best.
Particulars : Produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (Vancouver) in collaboration with The Cultch. Upcoming national tour in association with Pi Theatre. At the VanCity Cultural Lab, VECC site on Vennables @ Victoria. Until November 13. Run-time 75 minutes without intermission. Tickets on-line @ the cultch.com or by phone 604.251.1363
Production crew : Writer / Performer Tetsuro Shigematsu. Artistic Producer Donna Yamamoto. Director / Original Concept Dramaturgy Richard Wolfe. Dramaturge Heidi Taylor. Set Design Pam Johnson. Lighting Design Gerald King. Costume Design Barbara Clayden. Sound Design Steve Charles. Audio Dramaturge Yvonne Gall. Stage Manager Susan Miyagishima. Technical Director / Production Manager Jayson McLean. Props Master Carole Macdonald. Video Design Consultant Remy Siu. Apprentice Stage Manager Maria Zarrillo. Documentary Audio Yoshiko & Akira Shigematsu.