Yesterday afternoon I took a break from the grant application I was writing to catch a matinee performance of Tetsuro Shigematsu’s Empire of the Son, presented by Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre in association with the Cultch, where the solo show is being presented in the Vancity Culture Lab. The show instantly sold out its first two weeks of performances and so when a third was added I grabbed a ticket.
Shigematsu’s play is an autobiographical story of his stormy relationship with his father, a man who as child survived the incendiary bombing of his hometown in Japan and the fallout of Hiroshima, but who rarely talked about these events as an adult. Shigematsu Sr. immigrated first to London, where he worked for BBC Radio, and then to Canada, where he hosted one of the highest-rated foreign-language radio broadcasts for the CBC before his job was axed under Mulroney and he was demoted to mailroom clerk, retreating behind his yellow safety earphones so he wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of his fellow employees addressing him by his first name, Akira. Early on in the show we learn about the difficulty of Tetsuro’s father via an anecdote concerning his leather briefcase, which his son displays for us from the stage, embossed with the CBC’s familiar logo. Tetsuro had thought it might be a way for him to get closer to his Dad if he asked to borrow the bag; but his father refuses, saying only employees of the crown corporation could carry such a satchel. It’s just one of the many ironies of the tale being told that son, like father, also ends up working for CBC Radio, Tetsuro having inherited The Roundup from Bill Richardson in 2004.
And, indeed, this is a show very much about voice: finding it; sharing it; preserving it. Tetsuro talks in his father’s accented voice (and is rebuked, from beyond the grave, for doing so); he plays recordings of his father’s radio broadcasts and of taped conversations he made with him during his father’s slow decline while in hospital (the sound waves displayed to us indicating just how much silence Shigematsu Sr. left between each question); he amplifies his voice via various microphones and talks about how his CBC bosses worked with him to find a more masculine timbre at the beginning of his on-air career. And then there are the other voices brought into the story: those of Tetsuro’s mother and his sisters, who tease him about his Fu Manchu moustache and form an instant—and instantly natural—chorus of cooing love song around his father in hospital that puts the dryness in his own mouth to shame. We see and hear Tetsuro’s own children on video, challenging him as to why he never cries. And that is in fact the challenge that Tetsuro takes up over the course of the 75 minutes of this play—to cry for his father in death as partial recompense for what he could not say to him in life. It is a testament to the honest and unsentimental way director Richard Wolfe (of Pi Theatre) has approached this obviously very personal story that the fulfilling of this challenge by play’s end is not signposted for us by anything so crass as acoustically amplified heaving sobs; rather, we witness the tears that organically materialize on Tetsuro’s cheeks as he reaches the end of his story.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about the design concept for this piece. The two main elements of Pam Johnson’s set consist of a backdrop of warm wood, suggestive of shoji screens, and what looks a long laboratory counter. On top of this are several stations, some crowded with miniature objects, others filled with various substances (such as white sand or water). Using a moveable camera attached to a live video feed, at various points in the telling of his story, Tetsuro illustrates what he is saying by manipulating one or more elements at each station, which is then broadcast to us on a screen behind him. For example, the atomic mushroom cloud accompanying the Hiroshima bombing is achieved when Tetsuro injects a viscous liquid into a tank of water; and the crowded Tokyo commuter train carrying hundreds of thousands of salary men—including, at one point, both Shigematsu père and fils—we see whizzing by via a canny focalization of the camera’s lens on a toy train car being advanced by Tetsuro. But by far my favourite of these effects were those moments of what I’ll call double digitality—that is, when Tetsuro inserted his own fingers into the camera’s frame to literally stand in for different pairs of legs, as when he and his father, during his “anarchist” teenage phase, have an argument about his skateboarding, or when, in an illustration of a story by his daughter, Tetsuro uses his fingers to mimic the swoosh of skating atop a snowy Grouse Mountain.
If I have a criticism about the production, it’s that at times it felt a bit too rushed. Tetsuro tells his story at a breathless pace and perhaps his years of talk radio training leave him fearful of too many pauses. But I for one wished for some longer beats at various moments in the play, especially when a temporal or narrative transition was being made. I kept thinking back to those long silences in Tetsuro’s interviews with his fathers. In a play like this one something like dead air seems to take on so much added significance.