Empire of the Son’s Tetsuro Shigematsu delves into emotional memories of his father
From witnessing the embers of Hiroshima, living in London during the swinging ‘60s, and watching Marilyn Monroe lustfully sing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy, Akira Shigematsu’s life has been anything but dull.
It wasn’t until his son Tetsuro Shigematsu interviewed him and wrote the one-man show Empire of the Son that Akira’s life story became well known.
“I had this realization that I never had a conversation with my father beyond ‘pass the soya sauce,’” Tetsuro says. “I checked in with myself to discover if I was okay with that, and I was because that’s all I had known.”
Tetsuro has two children of his own, and realized that if they were anything like him they would start asking questions about their identity and grandpa Akira.
Sometime after that realization, Tetsuro interviewed his father for two years regarding his origins and thoughts on life.
After he heard his father’s stories and discussed them with his wife and close friends, Tetsuro knew he had the inner workings of a play.
“During the crafting of this play, I saw there was a sort of rhyme scheme to both of our lives,” he says. “My father and I had a very acrimonious relationship and I vowed to be nothing like him. So I went to arts school to take the furthest path away from him.”
However, being a past broadcaster for CBC, Tetsuro did share the commonality of radio with his father. While broadcasting for CBC’s external division, Akira had a huge role in captivating Japanese listeners with the stories of the Canadian First Nations, cowboys, cabbage patch dolls and more.
“When it came time for me to start asking questions, I deployed the only object we ever shared in common, which was the radio microphone,” Tetsuro says. “Even though we were unaccustomed to having any conversation, we were accustomed to having the long-form interview.”
Still, Tetsuro had to be creative with his line of questioning, as Akira was a stoic, traditional, and overtly aloof man.
“I had to use this conversational sonar to pick up any sort of irregularity in what he was saying to find these cracks that would lead to these stories,” he says.
He mined his childhood memories and experiences with his father to create a conversational dialogue. For example, he discovered the Marilyn Monroe tidbit by remembering his father’s response to the auction of her 1962 dress 25 years ago.
“I was flipping through Time magazine and said, ‘Look, they’re auctioning off Marilyn Monroe’s dress. What do you think about that Dad?’ He walked into the room, paused for about a second and softly said, ‘Oh, the colour looks so much different now.’”
It’s clear that Akira was a man who didn’t want to be seen as self-aggrandizing. During the interviews, Tetsuro asked for his father’s blessing to share his remarkable story. Fortunately, Akira agreed.
“He was so mystified that anyone would care, and he had this expression on his face like I was going to take his toenail clippings and auction them off on eBay,” Tetsuro says.
At its core, Empire of the Son is a play about a father and son who have almost nothing in common besides blood and radio. It uses dream-like projected imagery, voice and phone recordings, and dialogue to touch on topics such as immigration, intergenerational conflicts, fatherhood and cloaking emotion.
“The pictures I do offer of my father are sort of distorted through the lens of the play,” he says. “When I’m an adolescent, I kind portray him as this exaggerated, malevolent, deity and towards the end, he is very frail. I try to make it very clear that these are my subjective impressions of my father.”
We also hear his father’s displeasure with the whole ordeal through the voice of Akira.
“He undermines whatever credibility I have with the audience,” Tetsuro says. “He says, ‘I understand some of you have paid money to listen to my long-haired son tell you stories about me. My son doesn’t understand me and what he says is not true.’”
It’s an irregular choice to completely discredit yourself as a narrator during your own play, but this makes the start of the show rather odd and comical.
“The show enters territory that is quite fraught and emotional, but there’s all this unexpected humour in the show,” he says.
Sadly, Akira didn’t get a chance to see Empire of the Son as he passed away two weeks before the play’s initial 2015 debut.
“Soon after he died, I had the impulse to pick up the phone and ask him more questions, because I was constantly doing that,” Tetsuro says.
Everyone cried during Akira’s funeral except for Tetsuro.
“Within Japanese culture, there’s this masculine imperative that men are not supposed to cry,” he says. “My father comes from Kagoshima, which is the Japanese equivalent of Marlboro Country. It’s known as samurai country, where the men are part of this locus of hardcore Japanese macho culture.”
That ideology has clearly stuck with Tetsuro. He begins Empire of the Son by saying he hasn’t cried since he was a child.
“To me, it’s not a play, but a form of performance art. I’m hoping that by revisiting a couple of emotionally fraught stories I learn to cry in public a couple of times,” he says. “It’s this sort of a practice or public ritual for me to experience emotion in public and not be ashamed of it.”
It’s also a way to give Tetsuro’s father’s life meaning and honour his memory.
“Often I’m reciting his very words that he had written down in a memoir or the actual words from the interview,” he says. “It’s almost an incantation in a way and it can be a bit scary because it does feel like he is really there and I’m channeling his spirit on stage.”
Thu., Feb. 1 – Sun., Feb. 18
Empire of the Son
Citadel Theatre, The Club