Monday, 12 November 2018

Empire of the Son grabs ever-so tightly at the heart
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.

Tetsuro Shigematsu's diary Empire of the Son 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 : 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. 
Tetsuro Shigematsu uses a beaker of water to demonstrate a truth about relations between himself and his father -- all sons with all fathers -- how fluid and changeable they are constantly. 
Photo credit : Raymond Shum
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. 

Not all men probably suffer the extent of estrangement and distance young Tetsuro 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 his son 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 : Regularly punching through the 4th wall to interact with the audience, 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.
Meanwhile the central conceit the playwright focuses on is the question of whether he will actually cry when Dad's ashes finally come home. The question 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 :  A remount of its successful 2015-2016 runs at The Cultch, once again Produced by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (Vancouver) in collaboration with Richmond's Gateway Theatre. At Gateway's Studio B. Until November 17.  Run-time 75 minutes without intermission. Tickets & schedule information by phoning Gateway at 604.270.1812 or on-line @

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. Technical Director Andrew Pye.  Props Master Carole Macdonald.  Video Design Remy Siu.  Production Manager Adrian Muir. Stage Manager Susan Miyagishima.  Documentary Audio Yoshiko & Akira Shigematsu.

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