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Father’s death explored in Surrey-raised playwright’s in-home ‘Empire of the Son (Reimagined)’

‘I learned my father saw Marilyn Monroe sing Happy Birthday to JFK, and as a young boy he stood in the ashes of Hiroshima’
A promo image for Tetsuro Shigematsu’s “Empire of the Son [Reimagined],” a theatre project that invites the audience into the Surrey-raised creator’s Vancouver-area home to uncover “the incredible stories parents hide from their children,” online from April 7-9. (Submitted photo)

Surrey-raised playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu is back with a “reimagined” version of his acclaimed “Empire of the Son” play, this time streaming from the creator’s current home, in Vancouver.

He’s earned accolades for his one-man drama, which played in theatres across Canada following its 2015 debut at The Cultch, off Commercial Drive.

Online from April 7-9, viewers will follow the actor from a street corner to the intimacy of his home, a “Vancouver Special” – the same house where he recently lost a parent.

There, Shigematsu will help uncover “the incredible stories parents hide from their children,” an event post explains about “Empire of the Son [Reimagined],” to be livestreamed on Zoom. “Watch as he pulls objects off the shelf, and the major events of the 20th century, and family secrets, come tumbling down.”

Ultimately, “the personal becomes magical when a lifetime of silence between a father and son is finally broken.”

• RELATED STORY, from 2021: ‘This Japanese kid who grew up in Whalley’ is thrilled to return with acclaimed ‘1 Hour Photo’

Last spring, a Surrey Digital Stage production of Shigematsu’s “1 Hour Photo” was presented by Surrey Civic Theatres as a pre-recorded film of the solo show.

“You know, I’m just this Japanese kid who grew up in Whalley,” Shigematsu said at the time, “and to be able to go all over the world with these shows is significant. But to come back to my hometown like this, my old stomping grounds, yeah, that really feels like coming full-circle, something I had never anticipated doing. That’s really cool for me.”

He grew up in a home near Surrey Memorial Hospital and spent days learning to swim and running the track at Bear Creek Park.

Today, Shigematsu’s resumé includes writing for “This Hour Has 22 Minutes,” being the first person-of-colour to host a daily national radio program in Canada, and rave reviews for his “Empire of the Son” solo work, which played to more than 20,000 people in 18 cities in recent years.

Online, “Empire of the Son [Reimagined]” is designed to be interactive, inviting the viewer to participate and become part of the show. Tickets are available on for $22.23. Those reading this story can use promo code SNLVIP for an extra 10% off the ticket price.

“In my whole life, I never had single conversation with my dad that went beyond, ‘pass the soy sauce.’” Shigematsu recalled. “Despite the fact though I vowed to be nothing like him, we ended up in the same profession. We were both public radio broadcasters (he worked for the BBC, I worked for the CBC). And even though we each enjoyed vast audiences, we never actually spoke with each other. That is until he began to die.

“I thought to myself, this man, my father is going to die soon, and I don’t know anything about him. Am I okay with that? And I realized to my surprise that I was. But now that I have children, I knew if they are going to be anything like me, there will come a day when they begin wondering about their identity, who they are, where they come from. They’d eventually start asking questions about their grandpa, and I didn’t want to have to say, ‘I don’t know.’ So for their sake I realized it was now or never.

“So I deployed the only object we ever shared in common, a radio microphone. I recorded 19 hours worth of audio, and during that time, I learned my father saw Marilyn Monroe sing Happy Birthday to JFK, and as a young boy he stood in the ashes of Hiroshima, witnessing the end of the world, and the birth of a new one.

“This is not just the story of one person, it is the story of our time.”

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Tom Zillich

About the Author: Tom Zillich

I cover entertainment, sports and news stories for the Surrey Now-Leader, where I've worked for more than half of my 30-plus years in the newspaper business.
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