Art strengthens a bond not lost to loss in ‘Empire of the Son’

Monday 31st, October 2016 / 14:14
By Yasmine Shemesh
Time brings clarity and closeness as Tetsuro Shigematsu’s masterpiece returns to the stage.

Time brings clarity and closeness as Tetsuro Shigematsu’s masterpiece returns to the stage.

VANCOUVER — It has been just over a year since Tetsuro Shigematsu premiered his critically acclaimed one-man show, Empire of the Son, at the Cultch. It has also been just over a year since his father, the primary subject of the production that explores their acrimonious relationship, passed away. This month, Empire of the Son makes its anticipated return to the Cultch before embarking on a national tour. And as time passes, Shigematsu finds his relationship with his father continues to grow.

“Interestingly enough, I feel that, in a way, the emotional intensity has increased for me unexpectedly,” he says, “because when I first performed in the immediate aftermath of my father’s death, I suppose part of me was afraid of being in such close proximity to his death in a chronological sense because it just happened. But now that it’s a year later, I feel that, given that distance, I’m more relaxed and I’m more open to accepting or feeling or channeling my father’s spirit, or even the sense of who he is, onstage.”

His death was something Shigematsu was as prepared for as he could be as he finalized his script — something left malleable to keep the story true to life. After all, much was at stake. The newly re-assembled Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre had spent two years putting all efforts into producing the project. The Cultch, a venue Shigematsu calls his Wrigley Field, took a leap of faith, too, booking the production without so much as seeing a script.

As it turned out, of course, Empire of the Son was a tremendous success. Its run completely sold out, the extended run too, leaving rave reviews and enchanted audiences in its wake. Shigematsu, however, lost his father just 18 days before opening night.

Photo: Raymond Shum

Photo: Raymond Shum

Performing was therapy beyond compare. “It was a way for me to grieve and work through my feelings, sublimating it and turning it into something else,” Shigematsu says. “And if I didn’t have all of that, I don’t know what I would’ve done. In retrospect, and even at the time, I was so grateful to be able to have this creative means to work through everything, to work through my feelings, and to take all that feeling and all of those thoughts and put it directly into the work.”

For most of his life, Shigematsu’s relationship with his father, Akira, was strained. Despite living under the same roof, they’d never really spoken, apart from passing condiments at mealtimes.

Born in Japan, Shigematsu’s father later immigrated to London and worked as a radio broadcaster for the BBC and, after moving west, the CBC. Shigematsu, himself, was drawn to the airwaves, becoming the host of CBC Radio One’s The Roundup, following writing for This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Though connected by both blood and profession, cultural and generational barriers markedly separated Shigematsu and his father. His father would revel behind a microphone speaking to millions across the world on short wave radio, but found it stressful to carry a conversation with his own son.

Shigematsu first explored their relationship in the nineties with a small show he’d written called Rising Son. When his father’s health began to seriously decline in 2013, Shigematsu, himself now a father, knew he needed to return to the material. What happens when his children, half Japanese and half Iranian, start questioning their identities and, eventually, ask about Grandpa? Shigematsu didn’t want to have to tell them he didn’t have the answers.

One thing Shigematsu and his father mutually understood was the radio interview. And when Shigematsu pointed his old CBC microphone at his father, everything came out. Within this emotionally remote man were vast worlds of experience — he had stood in the ashes of Hiroshima. He had tea with the Queen of England and witnessed Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy. He was a bit like Forrest Gump, Shigematsu laughs, intertwined with such significant moments of the 20th century.

Tetsuro Shigematsu

Tetsuro Shigematsu

In a final interview, Shigematsu asked his father if he was curious why he’d been interviewed. He wasn’t. Nevertheless, Shigematsu explained it was because he wanted to share his story and wanted to ask for permission to do so. “And my father, given his stroke, would often take so long to answer, sometimes I’d wonder if he’d fallen asleep when I was interviewing him,” Shigematsu continues. “But he said ‘yes’ right away.”

Unsure if the question was fully comprehended, Shigematsu repeated it. “And, again, he said ‘yes.’ And I said, ‘why do you say yes so quickly?’”

“And he said, ‘because if you tell my story, then my life would’ve had some meaning.’”

Shigematsu was surprised. As a son, he still looked to his father for nuggets of wisdom in answer to life’s big questions. He never anticipated that he was actually providing them to his own father. “That, for me,” Shigematsu says, “more than the show, more than the accolades and the tours and all of that — the experience of giving myself an excuse or pretext to sit down with my father for all those hours, all those afternoons, that whole ritual, is the thing that I’m most grateful for.”

Empire of the Son runs at Vancity Culture Lab from November 1 – 13.

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