How much do you actually know about your parents’ lives?
For Tetsuro Shigematsu, the answer was not much.
“My whole life, I never had a conversation with my dad that went beyond the soy sauce,” said Shigematsu, a former CBC radio host who was born in England and raised in Canada.
But he decided to change that when his father was sick several years ago.
“I realized he would probably die soon within a couple of years, but that I still didn’t know who he is. I asked, ‘am I ok with that?’” said Shigematsu.
He started a two-year interview with his father, who has worked as a radio-maker for BBC in London, U.K., and turned his experience into a one-man show called Empire of the Son, which will be staged at Gateway Theatre from Nov. 8 to 17.
“I learned things like, for example, my father had tea with the Queen of England, he was there when Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to John F. Kennedy, and as a young boy, he also stood in the ashes of Hiroshima,” recalled Shigematsu.
When Shigematsu asked his father if he could share their conversation with the rest of the world, his father looked confused and “couldn’t understand why anyone could find his life story the least bit interesting.
“But actually others found them very interesting, and so do I,” said Shigematsu.
In the show which sold out its entire 2015 world premiere run, Shigematsu plays all characters, incorporating original recordings of their conversation, clips from his father’s radio program and his own, and home movies.
He also disappears from the stage sometimes when the audience watches a short movie, or aims the camera at small toys or his fingers.
“I use every possible different approach, whatever makes it engaging. I tell one story from different modalities, like a drawing that’s very multifaceted,” he explained.
Empire of the Son is a story about parents and children, the distances between them and attempts to overcome and bridge that distance, according to Higematsu.
“There is the distance between anyone who has had a parent who doesn’t speak about hardship in their lives. For example, some of our parents travelled a long way just to give us a better life,” said Shigematsu.
“It’s also about learning. Sometimes as children, we have rules for our parents about how we insist they must love us, but (the show is) also about letting go of those rules.”
Shigematsu said at first he thought he was telling a Japanese-specific story that referred to his father’s culture.
But after touring the show across Canada, he discovered that this is more of a generational story.
“Many people who have seen the show are from the Middle East, Europe, Africa or India, they all told me the same thing — that their father or mother was very similar, being very quiet or secretive about their past,” he said.
“I’m always happiest when people tell me that they want to begin asking their parents questions or that they are going to call their mom after the show.
“Someone told me, he is going to make a point of touching his mom physically.”
One thing people are surprised at, added Shigematsu, is how funny the show is.
“People think its very emotional, very sad, but in fact there is huge laughter during the show. I think that deepens the show and, in turn, makes the emotional part all the more poignant,” said Shigematsu.
Empire of the Son will be running at Gateway Theatre from Nov. 8 to 17.
This is the last stop in Canada before the show starts touring internationally.
Check out GatewayTheatre.com.