By Tetsuro Shigematsu. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production, presented by the Cultch. At the Cultch's Historic Theatre on Wednesday, October 4. Continues until October 15
“How does one live?” It’s a good question, one that writer-performer Tetsuro Shigematsu seeks to answer by looking at the life of one man, Mas Yamamoto—father of his friend and “boss”, producer Donna Yamamoto.
Shortly after his own father’s death, Shigematsu began a series of weekly interview sessions with Mas about his extraordinary life. At 14, just a few months after the death of his fisherman father, Mas was interned along with thousands of other Japanese Canadians in B.C.’s Interior during the Second World War. After the war, he laboured in orchards in the Okanagan, then moved to the Arctic to help build the radar stations of the Distant Early Warning line. It was there that he met his wife, and in his early 30s, he resumed his education, eventually earning a PhD. But his career as a scientist was short-lived; in his 50s, he reinvented himself as a businessman, opening a store that became the most successful one-hour-photo franchise in the country.
The events of this extraordinary life would make a fascinating story all by themselves, but Shigematsu contextualizes them within the trends and inventions of their respective eras, enhancing the communal experience. “Do we remember memories or recollect photographs?” he asks, after a riff on the distinctive colour qualities of particular types of photographic film. Space exploration is a recurring motif in a text that is by turns casual and poetic.
But the central voice here is Mas’s. The first time we hear it, he’s recalling being asked by a customer if he could develop and print “sensitive” photos. He explains that he understood this to refer to light-sensitive film, and was surprised to see the photos: “I wouldn’t call them obscene, but they were certainly eye-openers,” he says with a laugh. He candidly recalls loss, dislocation, heartbreak, and joy in a life touched by so many global currents of the 20th century.
Under Richard Wolfe’s direction, the play is a buffet of sensory textures. Susan Miyagishima’s exquisite miniatures are projected onto a rear screen edged with black photo corners. We see Mas’s father’s fishing boat spinning in circles as Mas’s voice narrates the story of his death. A mirror box creates rows of bunks and tents in the internment camps. In the little model of Shigematsu’s house, we see the kitchen table where he and Mas talk every Monday morning, complete with their tiny cups of tea. Pam Johnson’s set is spare and handsome, with a wide chest of drawers below the screen and a rotating platform that allows Shigematsu to animate the minatures, and it’s all beautifully lit by Gerald King. Composer Steve Charles contributes live musical accompaniment and occasional banter.
The most important prop of all is the clear vinyl record that holds just 18 minutes of the 36 hours of interviews Shigematsu conducted. I’d love to know if there are plans to share more of the story.