Kim’s Convenience is a little play with a big heart

 

Kim’s Convenience
Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company
Written by Ins Choi
The Grand Theatre
January 15-February 2, 2013
www.grandtheatre.com or 519-672-8800

Every now and then, a play or movie comes along that seems so real, so truthful, that you feel like a fly-on-the-wall in someone else’s house, observing their life, loves, troubles, and foibles. Kim’s Convenience is such a play. But in this case the setting isn’t a house, it’s a corner variety store owned and operated by a North Korean family.

It’s a familiar setting with familiar faces…most of us can recall shopping in many such stores during our lifetime. But Kim’s Convenience strips away that familiarity. It exposes the inner workings of an immigrant family with its clash of generations, traditions, and values. And it does so with humour, poignancy, respect, and love.

When the story opens, Appa, owner of Kim’s Convenience Store, is at a crossroads. He is old and tired, and when there is an offer to buy his store he must make a decision on his and his family’s future. While the money offered is substantial, the variety store is more to him than a mere commodity. It breathes his story, his life, his sacrifices, and he longs for his children to take it over and continue his legacy. The trouble is, Appa is estranged from his son Jung, and his daughter Janet, a 30-year-old photographer, has no interest in being tied down to the gruelling schedule required to run such an enterprise. She has seen the toll it has taken on her mother and brother.

Appa is, by any definition, a prickly personality. His English is marginal and he holds dear the history, allegiances, and traditions of his homeland. To give his children a chance at a better life, he gave up a respected teaching job in North Korea to become a storekeeper in Toronto. Now adults, his children have adopted Canadian habits. Their father’s frustration with them and his adherence to the old ways rankles, amuses, and, in the case of Jung, alienates them. It is this clash of cultures and expectations that creates the drama and humour in the play.

Kim’s Convenience won the Fringe Best New Play Contest in 2011 and a place in the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival. It proved so popular that Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company – an artist-founded, classical repertory theatre company that aims to “present the world’s greatest stories in vital Canadian interpretations” – staged the one-act play in two separate runs to sold-out houses in Toronto.

Written by actor/musician/poet Ins Choi, the story’s verisimilitude is due in large part to the playwright’s personal history. His father grew up in North Korea and immigrated to South Korea when the Korean Civil War broke out in 1950. His mother grew up in an orphanage in war-torn South Korea. Together they arrived in Canada in 1975 with $200 and three children. Choi’s father initially worked at his uncle’s convenience store by day and attended ESL classes by night.  

Although Kim’s Convenience is Choi’s first play, it is a beautifully written, beautifully acted, and beautifully staged work. While the story is familiar – immigrant family, clash of cultures, prodigal son – the characters are so finely drawn that they don’t come across as a cliché. They seem so real, you feel as if you could easily meet them in actual life – if you haven’t done so already. The playwright skilfully overcomes Appa’s language difficulties by having other characters repeat his words in English in a way that seems completely natural. The humour derives from the characters’ personalities and actions, but it is never demeaning or derisive. The laughs always overflow with affection and respect.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee effortlessly generates empathy for the irascible, hard-working, tradition-bound Appa. Jean Yoon, as Appa’s wife Umma, gives an understated performance that conveys her quiet resignation, compassion, and sorrow at the alienation of her son, with whom she is still in contact. Grace Lynn Kung as Janet provides just the right balance of spirited rebellion and need for her father’s love and approval. Ins Choi, author of Kim’s Convenience, is a suitably subdued Jung, worn down by a job he hates, the isolation from his family, and the burden of a newborn. And Clé Bennett shines in his four roles, most notably as Alex, the policemen who plays suitor to Janet with much humorous effect.

The set is also a star of the play. It replicates a corner variety store so well that you feel as if you could walk up on stage, grab a bag of peanuts, and they would be fresh. The electronic doorbell that hauntingly rings whenever the door opens and closes is reminiscent of every convenience store you have ever entered. While the store is set in Toronto’s Regent Park, it really could be anywhere in North America. This realism and universality adds to the naturalism of the story.

Kim’s Convenience is a little gem of a play. It packs a powerful punch in its 90-minute span that makes it well worth seeing. Choi says it is his “love letter” to his parents and all first-generation immigrants who call Canada their home. If so, it is a letter that is so heartfelt it can’t help but warm every heart. And it will no doubt make you look at the next convenience store you enter in a way you never have before.    

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Susan Scott is an arts writer and visual artist. Her drawings are on display at www.londonarts.ca.