It’s been a little over a year since Tetsuro Shigematsu’s Empire of the Son made history. It was the world premiere of his new one-man show, an intimate and affecting piece about his father, their family, and cultural identity, and before the play even hit previews, the entire run was sold-out. The Cultch extended the run, and those tickets sold out too.
Shigematsu still doesn’t know how it happened.
“We’ve researched it to the nth degree, but as far as we can tell, for the world premiere of a Canadian play to sell out its run before it opens, it’s never happened before that I’ve come across,” Shigematsu says. He’s still bewildered but obviously proud of the response to what is, ultimately, a story so personal and family-focused that after the first workshop, his sisters took him aside and gave him a warning.
“They said, ‘The good news is, we like it. We like it a lot,’ ” Shigematsu recalls. “The bad news is, no one else is going to find this interesting.’ ”
They were wrong.
Shigematsu is back in rehearsals to remount Empire of the Son at the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab, and will also tour into early 2017, hitting Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto. Shigematsu is quick to point out that he’s not a trained actor, but that didn’t stop him 20 years ago from mounting his first one-man show, and it hasn’t stopped him since.
“It’s that whole cliché, ‘Babies aren’t afraid of tigers,’ ” he says. “If I’ve had any success in my life, it’s because I’ve just jumped into the cockpit and said, ‘Hey, yeah, let’s do this!’ I didn’t realize how hard things are until it’s too late, so for me it was never really a question of courage.”
If anything, he says, he’s inherited his father’s “almost suicidal level of integrity, like, I’m just going to do it this way because that’s the only way I know how to do it.”
The mindset has served him well, especially in his first encounters with racism. During a recess game of Dukes of Hazzard, rather than let Shigematsu be Luke Duke, the kids declared “Luke’s dead today!” and ran off.
“I remember being dumbstruck, like ‘Am I invisible? Clearly, I am Luke Duke!’ ” Shigematsu recalls. “You begin to realize that you’re different.”
Shigematsu estimates that he’s had over 100 jobs so far and says it’s been particularly fascinating to see how he’s run into different levels of resistance based on the medium.
“I was hired to replace Rick Mercer for This Hour Has 22 Minutes in order to do his rants and his monologues,” Shigematsu says. “I remember my writing was strong, because during the table read it would get huge response from the cast, the producers, the crew.
“But when it was actually screened in front of the Friday-night Haligonian audience—which, bless their hearts, it’s the biggest thing to do on a Friday night when you get tickets, and for the most part, these were white, middle-aged or older Haligonians—and when they saw me, looming large on-screen, all they could think was ‘That’s a big Asian face and English is coming out of it.’ ”
Instead of laughter, there was silence.
“Tellingly, I got poached by CBC Radio [as the host of The Roundup] while I was a writer for This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and I met with a lot of immediate success on the radio because I sound totally white.”
He remembers feeling offended the first time someone told him that. “But I realized this is why I’m being promoted to host, whereas I couldn’t get arrested on TV unless I’m doing the Asian accent,” Shigematsu says. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and I’m noticing that things are changing all over.
“I did a YouTube channel for a little while, and because it’s the one mainstream medium that isn’t controlled by gatekeepers, suddenly diasporic Asians are dominating well above our numbers in the population, and so it’s exciting. Now, here in theatre, it’s an exciting time to be an artist of colour.”
There’s talk now that Empire of the Son might tour around the world.
“There’s this whole question about diversity, and I hope if there’s any take-away for cultural decision makers, it’s that diversity can mean great box office,” Shigematsu says. “I think there’s a hunger out there. Culture is more interesting when everybody’s story is told.”
As Shigematsu prepares to dive into telling his father’s story again every night, he thinks back on the last 12 months. He watched a video of his performance and noticed how clenched he was. His father had died just 18 days before Empire’s premiere last October.
“The distance of time has allowed me to feel more open and more supple,” he says. “My blood is flowing through all parts of my body and now I feel access to my emotions in a way I’ve never felt before. And that’s really interesting to me because I feel like my father was kind of killed by patriarchy.
“You know there’s only so many ways to be a man. If you’re a ‘real man’ you don’t show your feelings, you make the most money, you fight, you have sex with the most women, you drink the most. My father failed, and I fail, on all those counts. But on account of doing this show, I see my father in a different light.”
Empire of the Son is at the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab from Tuesday (November 1) to November 13.