Akira Shigematsu was a man with stories he long withheld from his son.
He was in the room when Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday to John F. Kennedy.
He once had tea with Queen Elizabeth II.
He grew up during the Second World War in Japan and stood in the ashes of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb dropped in 1945.
But it was his career as a radio broadcaster for the BBC in London that, as his health was failing, allowed him to finally talk to his son.
“In my whole life I never had a single conversation with him that was more than ‘pass the soy sauce.’ Our communication was always very terse or pragmatic, or even violent,” Tetsuro Shigematsu said.
The two connected over the microphone — just as his father did with those he interviewed and just as Tetsuro had during his tenure as a CBC Radio broadcaster. The result was a one-man show.
In 2015, Tetsuro debuted Empire of the Son in Vancouver, just three weeks following the death of his father.
“We didn’t really lock the script until 48 hours prior because my father’s death was unexpected,” he said.
The performance was also a difficult one, and Tetsuro said he was just barely able to deliver his lines and, seeing his initial performance as “stiff.”
But the sold-out audience at The Cultch was receptive and the show’s success allowed for a remount in 2016 and now a tour that has taken it across Canada, including a run in Kamloops that begins April 25.
And Tetsuro said he’s hitting his stride with the play, feeling present and relaxed in the moment and feels the power behind the words — his own and his father’s — now even more than before.
“I really feel the power of the work, the same way a rogue wave might hit you in the ocean. Suddenly the emotions are there and I’m surprised by them,” he said.
Tetsuro said at some point he asked himself, “This man I don’t really know is going to die soon, am I OK with that?”
He admits he was, but considered that someday his own two children might start wondering about their identity just as he did. So for their sake, he began a series of interviews with his ailing father.
“It wasn’t long before I realized, wow — this man’s life so closely follows the contours of the 20th century,” he told KTW.
The interviews found further purpose when Tetsuro started work on his doctorate at the University of British Columbia — which he recently defended successfully.
“I had to ask his permission in a very formal manner. I had been putting it off for two years,” he said.
His father had said no to being a research subject before, but with his fellowship coming to an end and student loans piling up, Tetsuro knew it was a make or break moment and built up the courage to ask again.
“I wanted his permission, but he shook his head in incredulity. He said, ‘I cannot conceive why anyone would have the slightest interest in the banality that is my life.’”
Pushing forward, Tetsuro insisted his father’s stories were of interest and he finally agreed.
Knowing he might not have the courage to revisit the matter, Tetsuro asked his father why he agreed to the interviews that led to the play.
“If you tell my story, my life will have had some meaning,” he said.
While the play is filled with power and emotion, Tetsuro said it’s not without its share of belly laughs.
Empire of the Son will open in Kamloops on April 25 at Pavilion Theatre, 1025 Lorne St. Tickets are available at the venue through the Kamloops Live box office, 250-374-5483 or online at kamloopslive.ca.