Kim’s Convenience Exceeds the Hype

Soulpepper's Kim's Convenience

paul sun-hyung lee as appa photo by cylla von tiedemann

On May 25th, 2013 I had a powerfully emotional experience in the audience at the Opening of Ins Choi’s beautiful play Kim’s Convenience at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. Written by Choi, a Soulpepper Academy graduate, this play premiered as a hit of the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival and went on to open Soulpepper’s 15th Season in January 2012. The remount runs at Soulpepper until June 19th, 2013. This play reminded me, at a time when I so urgently needed it, exactly what it is that I fell in love with in the Canadian Theatre and how exceptionally glorious and invigorating the experience of attending the theatre can be for the audience.

There isn’t anything newfangled or revolutionary about the construction of Choi’s play. It takes place in a convenience store owned by Korean immigrants in Regent Park and at once tells the story of one family’s struggle to connect with one another and the city around them in contemporary Toronto, while also shining the light on an experience that is so much a fabric of our city and of our country, as we seek to maneuver around our place in a not-quite-ideal Canadian cultural mosaic. Directors Weyni Mengesha (Original Production) and Albert Schultz (Remount) root Kim’s Convenience in intense Realism, which makes the audience feel as though they were watching the unfolding drama through the store’s security camera. At a time when the theatre is consistently looking to become more Post Post-Modern, Three Dimensional and Audio/Visual it is exciting to see how breathtaking stark, unabashed Realism still is when in the hands of beautifully deft actors wielding the words of a skilled playwright.

Kim’s Convenience Store is in a neighborhood that is being gentrified, and as condos are going up, Mr. Kim’s store is being threatened by Walmart moving in and stealing his business. Ready to retire, Kim is even more exasperated when his daughter, Janet, shows no interest in wanting to take over the store to ensure that his legacy in the neighborhood continues. Mr. Kim and Janet keep colliding with one another explosively as it becomes clear that his values, perspectives and experiences as a Korean immigrant to Toronto are radically different than hers as a first generation Canadian. Kim’s estranged son, Jung, who still meets his mother at Church, is conflicted about his own place in society. He has a tarnished past, a dead-end job and a new baby, all of which are persuading him to revaluate a relationship with his father.

Choi balances perfectly poignancy, humour and intensity in his rapid-fire dialogue. The play is filled with delightful absurdities (such as how to tell which mixture of race, gender and sexual orientation will ALWAYS shoplift) and great physical comedy, as well as truly moving moments of honest, sincere emotion. The result is a piece that continually has its audience laughing throughout, but leaves many in tears at the end.

Much of the success of the play is due to its formidable cast. Andre Sills plays a myriad of different customers to the store, but shines with so much charisma as Alex, the cop, who has his eye on Janet. Feisty photographer, Janet, is played by Grace Lynn Kung, who captures so beautifully the complex love of a child, who is no longer a child, still living at home, trying to make a life for herself by optimistically following her dreams. She has a very subtle sense of entitlement mostly shrouded by her captivating zest for life and irresistible hope for the future. Kung makes you love and root for Janet, despite her flaws. She is countered by her mother, Umma, played gorgeously by Jean Yoon, a devoutly religious woman who appears meek and sorrowful in her resignation for what has become of her life, yet with a distinctive formidable quality just beneath the surface. Ins Choi plays Jung, sheepish, haggard and a little lost. Both his and Yoon’s subtle, understated performances compliment beautifully the more volatile personalities of Janet and Mr. Kim.

Kim’s Convenience is certainly a star vehicle for Paul Sun-Hyung Lee who gives a mesmerizing performance as Mr. Kim, affectionately known as Appa. Lee manages to infuse all Appa’s rage, his paranoia and his gruff, tough love, with hefty doses of humour and a clear sense of his unwavering care for his family, his community and his heritage. He and Kung’s Janet have one especially harrowing fight about the price tag of Parenthood that rocks the audience to its core in its raw and painful intensity.

I love seeing a story like this about Korean Canadians onstage, especially at a theatre like Soulpepper, for whom original Canadian plays are something new to be celebrated. I also like that this play speaks not only so specifically about one distinct experience of living in Toronto, but that it also speaks more broadly about the human condition. I saw so much of my story in Janet, while still relating to Appa’s need to hold on to his own piece of the story and to remain connected to his homeland. I marvelled over Ken MacKenzie’s stunningly detailed Naturalistic set design. I relished in an experience that was so immersive I forgot that I was seeing a play I was so lost in the magical world of pretend.

Thank you all so much, from the bottom of my heart, for peppering my soul.  

Kim’s Convenience plays through June 19th at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. Soulpepper Theatre Company is located at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto, ON. Tickets range from $22 -$68 (plus service charge) and are available by calling the Young Centre box office at 416.866.8666 or by visiting soulpepper.ca. $22 tickets are available for 21-30 year-olds at stageplay.ca. StagePlay is sponsored by TD Bank Group.

The cast and crew of Kim’s Convenience are hitting the road and embarking on a “National Tour” to the following venues in the upcoming months:

July 11 – 28,
2013
Port Hope Festival Theatre
Port Hope, ON
Sep 3 – 29,
2013
Theatre Calgary
Calgary, AB
Nov 6 – 23,
2013
Theatre Aquarius
Hamilton, ON
Jan 22 – Feb 8,
2014
National Arts Centre English Theatre
Ottawa, ON
Mar 13 – Apr 5,
2014
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Winnipeg, MB
Apr 24 – May 24, 2014 Arts Club Theatre
Vancouver, BC

I sincerely hope this beautiful play finds its way to Halifax some time soon. It would certainly be a treat for audiences there to see!!  

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