Photo. courtesy of the NAC, English Theatre.
The Empire of the Son is a one man show that raises important questions which much contemporary theatre is asking. Questions of memory and migration, of individuals trying to define their identity by discussing their origins, or their parents origins, or the difficulties related to generational conflict, or fitting into a host society that did not always open its doors to these newcomers attempting to rid themselves of the trauma of rejection or violence suffered in the past. Such writers/performers such as Wajdi Mouawad, Mani Souleymanlou are emblematic of this but even more recently during Zones Théâtrales (Ottawa) we saw Sans Pays, by budding playwright Anna Beaupré Moulounda. She is a product of a Québécois mother and a father from the Congo, discussing growing up in Abitibi and what it meant to be an outsider. These cases are all different and they show how migration, generates multiple questions that each individual must confront.
Tetsuro Shigematsu, unlike the other performers who play themselves on stage, comes to the theatre with a whole professional background and a well-established public persona that has no doubt made his journey much easier. As a local radio personality in Vancouver, as a host on CBC and a beautiful radio voice he initiated his journey with the tools of his theatrical trade. He constructed his difficult relationship with his talented and fascinating Japanese father who survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima in 1946, who immigrated to England where he worked for the BBC and then brought his family to Canada . That is where his son, Tetsuro eventually made his own life as a broadcaster and writer. People doing research on migration as expressed in contemporary theatre (note the recent conference organized by Professor Yana Meerzon on Immigration and the Theatre) , will certainly be interested in this story because it concerns aspects of the Asian population in the west of Canada which are being defined through theatre and this play will certainly be studied for a long time.
Tetsuro who performs himself and who sometimes deftly morphs into his father, takes us on this journey at a trying time when his father in dying (apparently he really died during the opening performance of this show) and he is caring for him. The son/actor recounts memories, explains what happened in the past, tells us what he is doing at the present to comfort his dying father and how he is finding closure with this man who did not know how to express his emotions, who was very strict but whom Tetsuro admired and respected. The father also had an immense impact on his life and the fact that this son never knew how to laugh, was perhaps the most sadly significant heritage of his father. The text is a strong testimony to the power of memory within the question of migration and this author grasped that very well.
Nevertheless I found that during the whole show (75 minutes) I did not feel particularly involved or moved by the performance. As a member of the public who had never heard of this actor I was not someone who was aware of his reputation as a west coast personality and I think that might have had something to do with my reaction. This character, was a comedian, and I could immediately see how he could have written a script that was produced on This Hour has 22 Minutes as we have been told. Most of the show was about that level of performance. He was trying to get laughs from the audience, he was focusing on transforming this complex father-son relationship into light entertainment. Much of that impression was caused by breaks that occurred when the actor switched from his sober, dignified, traditional, older father to become the modern hyperactive son who cut up the narrative and turned his form of communication into bantering. I was rarely touched in any way, nor did I feel emotionally involved in this performance which glided over most things and left me empty, wondering what was missing. .
The moment when he described the father’s memories of the Hiroshima bombing (a white light) were the strongest testimonies about the father who apparently repressed the whole experience. That was moving but it all became a funny story whereas it was a deeply traumatic and terrifying event. There were projections of images from Hiroshima, and projections of images that included the father that were not set up in an effective way to highlight any point about the relationship. Somehow they all left me indifferent.
As the actor brings in his sister, his own children to show how the following generations were leading lives that were modern, Canadian, and in tune with contemporary culture, the mimicry of his own children had the audience saying condescending things like “awe isn’t that cute’ and then giggling with glee. Something was wrong.
Recordings of the father’s voice were suddenly there without pinpointing anything specific. The minimalist technologically oriented with the lighting was very good but definitely underused as all those elements could have transmitted emotional content that made words unnecessary.
The final moments were much more subdued, and I felt something suddenly happening between myself and this stage event , but it took about 70 minutes for this reaction to take hold. The rest of the time I felt we were being cheated out of a solid piece of theatre, based on extremely interesting material but that seemed to have chosen to dilute the content, placing it in a superficial form of delivery to make sure the audience would be amused.
Empire of the Son continues until December 5 in the Studio of the NAC.
Written and performed by Tetsuro Shigematsu
Directed by Richard Wolfe
Produced by Donna Yamamoto,
Set design by Pam Johnson
Lighting by Gerald King
Sound by Steve Charles
A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre Production