Review: Empire of the Son (Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre)

Tetsuro Shigematsu’s tale is “entertaining” and “well performed”, at the Factory Theatre in Toronto

Tetsuro Shigematsu’s Empire of the Son opened to a full house on Wednesday at Factory Theatre. It’s the last stop on the current tour of Eastern Canada for the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production. Shigematsu’s autobiographical show is an engaging tribute to his father, Akira Shigematsu.

Shigematsu, who wrote the piece as well as performing it, says early in the show that he’s not an actor. That may be true but he is a performer and his performance was nuanced and relaxed. It felt intimate.

His father died 18 months ago. This piece a celebration of his father’s life, a love letter to the father who never said “I love you” but who demonstrated his love for his family in non-verbal ways. He’s mourning his father in public; letting everyone know that he loved him.

Shigematsu didn’t cry when his father died. He doesn’t cry, he’s a man. His father didn’t cry. He hopes that doing this show will help him to be able to cry for his father. Given the sniffling in the audience, quite a few of us were crying for him.

Not that Empire of the Son is all sad. It isn’t. It’s also quite funny in parts. Shigematsu’s script is well balanced. He tells his father’s story, and his story, in a combination of flashbacks and chronological order that’s easy to follow. It doesn’t build to a big climax, we know from the beginning that his father died. It’s more like a walk on a lovely day than it is like a race. No unnecessary drama.

I liked the way the show wove photos into the story. I particularly liked it when the photo was accompanied by a recording of someone in his family. There was a lovely photo of Shigematsu and his three sisters in a car and a recording of his sisters teasing him about his mustache.

He also uses live video and tiny props to illustrate parts of the story. In one scene we see a skateboard and two pairs of legs, Shigematsu’s, with one foot on his skateboard, and his father’s. The legs are actually Shigematsu’s fingers. Elaine, who accompanied me this evening, wasn’t that impressed with the video and little props but recognized that it was done to keep the audience’s attention. She said she appreciated the effort.

Akira Shigematsu was born in Japan before the war. He emigrated to London where he was a broadcaster with the BBC and then to Canada where he was a broadcaster with the CBC. It wasn’t easy for Shigematsu to get his father to tell him about his early life. I’m glad he did. It’s a life worth knowing about.

My friend Elaine and I are both fans of one person, autobiographical shows. The kind of shows that are really storytelling rather than plays. I suppose I’m curious about other people’s lives and want to know about the similarities, and the differences, to my own. It’s in the relationships that I most often find the similarities.

It’s in the differences that I learn. I’m enjoying Factory’s Beyond the Great White North season and appreciate the opportunity to see theatre by people from cultures that are different than mine, theatre by new Canadians. It’s always a gift when a learning experience is also really entertaining.

Empire of the Son is really entertaining. A very enjoyable show, well performed.

My only quibble about the evening is that it was so hot in the theatre.


  • Empire of the Son is playing until January 29, 2016 at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St).
  • Shows run Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm (no matinee on January 21).
  • Tickets are $25.00 , $20.00 for seniors, students, and arts workers.
  • Tickets are available online, by phone at 416 504 9971, and at the box office.

Photo of Tetsuro Shigematsu by Raymond Shum