Ins Choi’s play, Kim’s Convenience, centres on a day in the life of a Korean-Canadian family who owns a small convenience store in a downtown Toronto neighbourhood poised on the brink of gentrification. The play is, not surprisingly, filled with inside jokes and there are even parts of the script performed in Korean. One would expect, then, that the show would work best for a smaller, very specific audience. Yet, the exact opposite has happened. Choi has managed to create a story that is so universal in its specificity in that it captures a part of everyone’s story, even if they don’t happen to be a first or second generation Korean immigrant. Critiquing theatre in Canada, I end up thinking a lot about what it means to create art that is particularly Canadian. The beauty and appeal of Kim’s Convenience is that it manages to capture the essence of Canadian identity, with all its diversity and constant flux, in a small convenience store in downtown Toronto.
We walk in on Appa’s efforts to convince Janet to take over the family business in the absence of his son, Jung (played by the playwright), who ran away from home as a teenager and ended up getting into trouble with drugs and the police. Taking over Kim’s Convenience is the last thing on Janet’s mind, who would much rather concentrate on her budding photography career.
The play’s core really is Appa, the patriarch of the family and a first generaion immigrant, played brilliantly by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. Stalwart and, at times, endearingly and hilariously intolerant, Appa has a vast knowledge of Korean history, is proficient in martial arts, and, while he sees nothing wrong with gay or black people, he doesn’t hesitate to inform his daughter Janet (a fun and fiery Grace Lynn Kung) that a gay couple won’t steal, though lesbians and black men wearing jean jackets will. It’s a credit to Lee’s acting ability that it is so easy to follow the storyline despite his character’s sometimes hard-to-understand English. Andre Sills, who played a variety of customers and Janet’s love interest, is also brilliant and seamlessly changes from character to character, and from accent to accent.
Indeed, it is also much to director Weyni Mengesha’s credit that, even when Appa and Umma (played by a demure Jean Yoon) speak in Korean, it doesn’t take away from the pacing or understanding of the play. There is also a masterful understanding of pace in Kim’s Convenience. So often, directors seem wary of a silent, still stage. Not Mengesha. There is a lovely use of silence throughout the play, particularly at the very beginning when Appa is setting up shop and during Jung and Appa’s re-meeting. It’s nice to see a director who hasn’t forgotten that life is made up just as much of stillness as movement and noise.
Ken MacKenzie’s set, much like the play, is the every-man of the convenience store. We’ve all visited one just like this during our childhood and we most likely still stop by one for our cigarettes. From the rows of chocolate bars and gum below the cash register, to the brightly coloured chip bags and fridge, this is the store that quietly sits on street corners and, though rarely noticed for it, is the cornerstone of every neighbourhood.
Kim’s Convenience is a lighthearted play with a hidden deeper meaning. It’s not perfect – the ending is sudden and wraps up a little bit too neatly. It’s a little bit hard to believe that, after over 15 years of anger and conflict, Appa and Jung resolve their differences in one quick scene. However, despite this problem, the play is none the less a fun ride with many poignant moments.
Kim’s Convenience plays until February 8 at the National Arts Centre.
Written by Ins Choi
A Soulpepper Production (Toronto)
Ins Choi – Jung
Grace Lynn Kung – Janet
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee – Appa
Andre Sills – Rich, Mr. Lee, Mike, Alex
Jean Yoon – Umma
Weyni Mengesha – Director
Albert Schultz – Remount Director
Ken MacKenzie – Set and Costume Designer
Lorenzo Savoini – Lighting Designer
Thomas Ryder Payne – Sound Designer
Sean Baek – Fight Director
Kat Chin – Stage Manager
Neha Ross – Assistant Stage Manager
Kelly McEvenue – Alexnader Coach
Liza Paul – Dialect Coach