Saturday, January 10, 2015

Theatre: Kim's Convenience

It is every playwright or actor's dream to have his show from the Toronto Fringe Festival generate so much buzz that it attracts the attention of a major theatre company.  Toronto's own Ins Choi became one of the lucky few who actually made that wish come true.  His smash hit of the 2011 Fringe Festival, Kim's Convenience, a funny, heart-warming play about a Korean family running a convenience store in Regent Park, Toronto, was picked up by the Soulpepper theatre company for a professional run in 2012.  That production was so successful that Kim's Convenience returned to Soulpepper for a limited run in 2013 and then again in 2014.  It has been on a national tour across Canada with some talk of a US tour or possibly a TV show.  Ins Choi, who wrote and starred in this play, really has hit the jackpot.
As much as Kim's Convenience is about cultural and generational divides, at its core, it is about familial love and reconciliation.  Appa, the strong-willed, opinionated and traditionally Korean patriarch, tries to impart his experience and wisdom regarding running of the store to his second-generation Canadian daughter Janet.  He hopes to retire and pass his legacy to her, but she has no interest in accepting this torch.  The interactions between Appa, Janet and the various customers (all played by the same actor) that enter the store lead to some side-splitting moments of hilarity. Appa tries to teach Janet how to tell whether a customer will "steal or not steal" based on his appearance, shows off his martial arts skills when apprehending a shoplifter, and interferes with her love life when a potential suitor appears.  But through his gruff exterior and despite their arguments, you can feel the love between the two.
The tone changes from comedy to sentimentality in the latter part of the play which deals with the estranged son Jung, who has not spoken to Appa since he ran away years ago at age 16, but meets regularly with his mother Umma at a local Korean church.  Two scenes perfectly portray youthful hopes and vigor since worn down by the drudgery of life.  When Jung describes his school days as captain of the championship soccer team, his voice brims with pride and excitement.  But then reality sets in as he reflects on his current situation as a new father with a deadbeat job that barely makes ends meet.  A flashback scene shows Appa and Umma discussing what to name their newly purchased convenience store.  When Appa's reasonable choices such as Kim's Family Grocery are already taken by other Korean grocers elsewhere in Toronto, he comes up with amusing variations such as Kim Hortons instead of Tim Hortons, or Kim's Cheese instead of Mac's Milk.  During the flashback, the couple's faces were bright and shiny with optimism.  Once the memory was over, their expressions changed on a dime to show the weariness brought on by time taking its toll.

We first watched Kim's Convenience when it played in the 2011 Fringe Festival and were curious as to what changes would be made in the Soulpepper production.  Through the various iterations of the show in Toronto and across Canada, most of the 5 member cast have rotated in and out, except for Paul Lee who plays Appa.  He is so iconic in this role that it is inconceivable to imagine anyone else playing it.

During the post-show question and answer period, I asked how the show had changed since the Fringe days.  In terms of storyline, the script had pretty much remained intact, other than to add current social references such as Facebook.  The one exception was the addition of an extremely poignant and moving monologue.  Appa tells Janet that despite his prejudices, he does not mind if she dates a black policeman, who is an old friend of Jung's.  To explain why, he tells the story of his Korean grocer friend in Los Angeles who frequently loaned money to his black customers who needed help.  During the Rodney King riots, a crowd of black people descended upon his store and he thought he was about to be vandalized.  Instead, it was his customers who joined hands to form a human chain to protect his store.  This was such a beautifully written speech that it brought tears to my eyes (for not the only time while watching this play).

The other major upgrade from the Fringe show was the relatively elaborate set.  The convenience store was well stocked with actual products and had an actual swinging door with a bell.  This was all simulated in the Fringe show.  Through the magic of lighting, a separate section at the side of the stage was illuminated to reveal stained glass windows representing the church where Jung and Umma meet.  The actress currently playing the role of Umma is in fact Chinese and had to learn the brief snippets of untranslated Korean dialogue phonetically with the help of a dialogue coach.  She also described the process of learning how a traditional Korean woman would act in expressing anger, disappointment or weariness.

Ins Choi was told to write about what he knew, which included working in his parent's convenience store, the Korean church scene and downtown Toronto. He wrote Kim's Convenience both as a tribute to his parents and as a "love letter" to Toronto.  The play is filled with references to Toronto streets, shops and restaurants.  When asked whether the names of places changed when the show was on tour, the answer was an emphatic "No".  Toronto is an integral character in this play.

Kim's Convenience is so popular because it resonates with all people regardless of race.  The cast and crew talk about how often audience members come up to them and say "This is my story".

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