Tetsuro Shigematsu is a man who is seemingly unable to cry. In his new one-man show Empire of the Son, playing in the National Arts Centre’s Studio space until December 3rd, Shigematsu explores his tempestuous relationship with his father through a series of comedic flashbacks and poignant film vignettes to reveal a deeply pained individual desperate for catharsis. A powerful reflection on grieving and human migration that’s “both physical and psychological” (Richard Wolfe, “Director’s Notes”, Prelude 2016), this piece vibrates with emotion at an intense frequency.
The resume that writer-performer Shigematsu boasts is an impressive one. As a former writer for the television series The Hour Has 22 Minutes, he went on to become the “first person of colour to host a daily national radio program in Canada” (“Biographies”, Prelude 2016) in 2004 with CBC Radio’s The Roundup. Admittedly, this is my first introduction to Mr. Shigematsu’s work but his professional training is nevertheless evident on stage.
Deftly blending together flavours of stand-up comedy and classic storytelling, Shigematsu takes his audience on a journey through geographical space and time in an attempt to carve out a suitable characterization of his formidable father, former BBC broadcaster, Akira Shigematsu. According to Shigematsu jr, the reason he has never been able to cry as an adult is because his father (whose father also never cried) never did, illuminating a long line of apparently emotionally despondent men. However, if there is one thing this play does prove it’s that still waters do indeed run deep as Shigematsu shares intimate mementos and audio recordings from his father, including a first-hand account of the Hiroshima bombing in 1945. A truly lovely portrait of his family, we are entertained by Shigematsu’s comical impressions of his children, his sisters, and of course his father affording the audience a tiny glimpse into his life growing up around the globe.
The long and well-lit surface that dominates the centre stage area is hooked up with a small camera and used to project various vignettes shot in miniature onto a large screen situated in some wall-flats a little further upstage. For the majority of the piece we see Shigematsu work around this particular station, though this isn’t to say that the rest of the stage isn’t utilized as well. The moments with the camera are, for the most part, really well executed and bring such a wonderful texture to what would otherwise be a fairly traditional one-man show. Stand out moments for me are definitely the ice skating scene (created using only the performer’s hands and what looks to be salt or sugar as the snow) and the train ride through the city. In both of these scenes Shigematsu is able to present the audience with completely new scenery without ever really needing one set change.
That being said, some of the set up for these shots seem a little ‘finnicky’ in this production’s current iteration. What I mean by that is: you’re presenting the audience with an incredibly emotional story and also, at the same time, a really cool piece of technology. When you start ‘fiddling’ around with gadgets people have possibly never seen before, their interest piques making it difficult for some to keep focused on what is currently being said to them. This has nothing to do with someone’s attention span or lack thereof. Simply put, it’s just the nature of theatre whereby everything that happens on a stage becomes super interesting and in these particular moments it feels like our focus is being unintentionally split. Before moving on, I just wanted to give a shout out to lighting designer Gerald King because his conception of the short wave radio particles is visually stunning as the lights play off the set and the entire studio space at large.
If I can be frank, this review took me an especially long time to get through with an extraordinary number of drafts now sitting in the trash bin. I lost my mother in 2012 and I still find it difficult to get through performances dealing with the death of a parent. You see, I’m not like Shigematsu in fact it’s quite the opposite- I’m a crier. Much of Shigematsu’s experience dealing with his ailing father resonated with me: the uncertainty in the constant hospital visits, for example, and never knowing if this time would be their last time. In the final moments where Shigematsu talks about his father’s voice being eternalized in echoes forever traversing through short wave radio frequencies, I broke.
This conflicts me as a critic- someone who many people believe should always strive for objectivity. I don’t think I’ve reached a stage in my grieving yet where I can possibly be anything but completely subjective in the ‘heat’ of a performance of this nature. All that to say, it does take more of a significant effort to hash out these personal feelings in order to view the piece through a more objective lens.
The story has a really nice pace to it (thanks no doubt in part to director Richard Wolfe) and the exploration of the short wave radio as a forgotten art form is a thoughtful one. I find that it gets a trifle preach-y towards the end during a specific nostalgia-fueled monologue about how society is losing our ability to truly connect to one another because of technology. Despite this feeling like a tired generational argument, I can’t help feel a little insulted knowing that my own personal experiences have seen the proverbial best of both worlds. Medical technology is directly responsible for keeping my mom alive when she depended on two blood transfusions a week and it was because of social messaging technology that I was able to stay in touch with her on a daily basis while she was in the Intensive Care Unit. My mother also understood the value of the hand written letter and I still keep a plethora of her hand designed holiday cards (side note: anyone who knows me, knows I’m a sucker for handing out hand written cards and valentines to all my friends and coworkers). I also have the entire transcript of every single text message we ever sent one another (my mother literally had maybe 2 cell phones her entire life) including her final words to me: I love you more than anything. To me anyways, the didactic attitude of this monologue does not mesh well with empathetic and understanding nature of the rest of the piece.
Ultimately, by the end of the show Shigematsu does, in fact, shed a tear (another truly beautiful moment) and, I think, as the lights faded out to black we all hugged our friends and/or family members a little bit closer. Playing until December 3rd, don’t forget to bring some tissues!
Empire of the Son
Written and Performed by Tetsuro Shigematsu
Directed by Richard Wolfe
A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre Production