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Empire of the Son is the story of two generations of CBC broadcasters and the radio silence between them. An original one-hander that blurs the boundaries between artistic disciplines and continents, it is a unique theatrical hybrid in which playwright-actor Tetsuro Shigetmatsu discovers vast worlds contained within his emotionally remote father – from the ashes of World War II and Hiroshima to swinging London in the 1960s and work at the BBC. As the playwright learns about how his own father was once a son, he realizes all the ways in which he himself needs to step up and become a better dad. This funny, poignant story of one immigrant family and their intergenerational conflicts reminds us that no matter how far we journey out into the world to find ourselves – across decades and continents – we never stop being our parents’ children.
Empire of the Son premiered in Vancouver and was nominated for six Jessie Richardson Awards in 2016: Significant Artistic Achievement, Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Lead Role, Outstanding Lighting Design, Outstanding Direction (Richard Wolfe), Outstanding Production of a Play, Significant Artistic Achievement, and Outstanding Original Script (Tetsuro Shigematsu). It is currently being toured across Canada.
Please enjoy the below scenes, excerpted from pages 3–6 of Empire of the Son, which is the first book published in Talon’s Spring 2017 season.
TETSURO walks onstage and stands with his back to the audience while stepping out of his traditional Japanese wooden geta clogs. Barefoot, he turns to the audience and bows. He remains barefoot throughout the performance.
TETSURO: In Japan, within the closet of any self-respecting Japanese man, you will find at least one black suit. And if you were to search the pockets of that suit, invariably you will find two ties, one in each pocket. A white tie, for all the weddings in his life. And a black tie, for all the funerals.
My father died on September 18. And I failed not once but twice. Two nights before he died, he was experiencing a rare moment of lucidity. So I asked him –
Hey Dad, how are you feeling?
AKIRA: Ii kibun, ii kibun.
“I feel good.” And I had this impulse. You should say it! Now’s your chance, just say it. It’s only three words. But that’s not something he ever said to me, so I wasn’t sure how. So I said, “Good night, Dad.” That night, he went to sleep and never woke up again. I didn’t know that would be our last conversation. Two days later, he died. Our whole family was there. My sisters cried. I didn’t. That was strike two. I feel like I have one more chance to get it right.
In Christianity, cremation tends to be frowned upon. But I think my parents may in fact be more Japanese than Christian because if you’re Japanese, there’s really only one cardinal sin – to be meiwaku – troublesome, a bother. So my father’s instructions to us were to have his body donated to science. Which is great for us, because we save money. The thing is we won’t get his ashes back for a while.
So now my father’s funeral has been placed upon my timeline, and I’m watching it approach. And on that day, I’d like to be able to cry. I haven’t cried since I was a kid. So I’m not gonna be able to just do it on the day of the funeral. Because if I do start to lose it, I’m gonna think oh wow, it’s happening, I’m actually doing it. “Quick, someone take a photo! Instagram me!” – Ah, forget it, moment’s passed.
For me to really cry at my father’s funeral without self-consciousness, I figure I gotta cry at least a couple of times, so on that day, it’ll be no big deal, just another emotion. So I want to thank you for coming out. Because this is not something I can do on my own. I just can’t stand in front of the mirror at home and will myself to cry. Maybe that’s something actors do. I don’t know, I’ve never been to acting school. But I do have this “actorly” intuition. My sense is, if I open myself to you, and you open yourself to me, then maybe together we can summon a spirit I haven’t felt since I was a kid. I have two kids, and they’re gonna be there at my father’s funeral. And when my kids see me being all friendly, shaking hands, making jokes, everyone else will be thinking, “Oh look at the good son, putting on such a brave front,” but my kids will be thinking, Daddy really is a sociopath, superficially charming, but fundamentally lacking true empathy. Can’t even cry at his own father’s funeral.
So for me this capacity to cry isn’t just a trivial matter, because I think the tenderness of our hearts is directly related to our capacity to feel joy. I mean, if there are no valleys within, can there really be mountain peaks? Maybe my interior is just a well-groomed golf course with slight undulations.
So tonight, we are going to explore geologically unstable territory. Together you and I will do a little jig over some fault lines and see what happens.
The lights shift, and in shadow, TETSURO pulls AKIRA’s glasses out of the inner breast pocket of his black suit and puts them on. The lights come up, and he bows slightly.
AKIRA: (with a Japanese accent) My name is Shigematsu Akira. Please do not call me Akira. You may refer to me as Mr. Shigematsu. I take it some of you have paid money to listen to my long-haired son tell you stories. Please keep in mind they are just that. Stories. My son enjoys telling stories. Whenever someone asks me about my youngest child, I tell them: “My son makes fun of my accent for a living.”
TETSURO: (removing glasses to indicate he now plays himself) Oh come on, Dad, do you really think this is a living? This is theatre! I took the bus here.
AKIRA: Need I say more? Imagine if you will, someone who thinks they know you so-o-o well, but in reality they do not understand you at all. Now imagine such a person has the temerity to perform a one-man
show about you. Imagine what kind of purgatory that might be. Irasshaimase! Welcome to my world.
TETSURO places the glasses on the small table so that they face the audience. He produces a pair of yellow ear protectors from the leather briefcase.
TETSURO: Exhibit A. These are the ear protectors my father, Akira Shigematsu, used at work.
He shows the ear protectors to members of the audience in the front row.
TETSURO: He was not a construction worker. He did not operate a jackhammer. By the time he acquired these, he was on the verge of retirement, pushing a mail cart through the hallways of CBC Montreal. It was the last stop on a storied career as a public radio broadcaster. And these ear protectors were his attempt at social signaling.
TETSURO puts on the ear protectors.
AKIRA: Don’t talk to me. Stay away. I bite.
Read on by ordering a copy of Empire of the Son today for $16.95.