Inner Elder and Empire of the Son use similar methods to showcase diverse cultural worlds

If you’re in the mood for an interesting juxtaposition, High Performance Rodeo has two plays in its stable this year that echo each other in fascinating ways. 

Inner Elder at Lunchbox Theatre and Empire of the Son at ATP are both solo shows that pay tribute to elders and examine the impact of family on identity and relationships. Both are helmed by master storytellers — Michelle Thrush (Inner Elder) is an award-winning Indigenous actor (North of 60, Arctic Air, Blackstone), and Tetsuro Shigematsu (Empire of the Son) is a Japanese-Canadian comedian and filmmaker whose credits include hosting CBC radio’s The Roundup and writing for This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

Thrush tells her story through small glimpses into her childhood, teens and adulthood. Numerous family members factor into her story, but only her grandmother, or kookum, is fully realized. Thrush becomes the character, and in a sense her story is universal. While the events of her personal history are sometimes hard to hear, her humour and openness make this an opportunity for genuine understanding. The events of her history as an Indigenous woman are particular, but she paints a clear, humorous and often poignant picture of a family and upbringing that could be your own if circumstances were different. A fantastic imagination, as well as the love and wisdom of family guiding her through difficult times. 

Shigematsu’s tale is about his father. Although his mother, sisters and children touch the story at the edges, it is very much a meditation on the relationship between father and son — a relationship that in this case is loving but fraught. Using stories, letters, fragments of recordings, photos, and a diorama that he magnifies and projects centre stage, he describes a history that is uniquely tied to time, place, and culture. He reflects on his experience as a relatively privileged young person at times at odds with his more traditional Japanese father, and comes to appreciate his father’s resilience in the face of repeated trauma. 

There is a touching similarity to the ways in which both stories demonstrate a child’s discomfort at being different from their peers. And both artists describe a path to appreciating the gifts of those who preceded them. But their paths are unique, and if you have a chance to see both, you may find yourself having some interesting conversations about your own origin story.

(Photo of Tetsuro Shigematsu courtesy Raymond Shum.)

Inner Elder runs until Jan. 27 at Lunchbox Theatre,, and Empire of the Son runs until Jan. 28 at the Martha Cohen Theatre,

Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and continues to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her event listings page, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.