Ins Choi's Kim's Convenience makes a graceful move from Fringe favourite to Soulpepper headliner. Now, all the world's a stage.
The term “game changer” is thrown around a lot, usually referring to the latest app that lets you flick things at other things, or a tiny metal box that organizes everything from music to the meaning of life. But sometimes a game changer is so subtle, so familiar, that its success is blindsiding. Such is the case of Kim’s Convenience.
It’s the typical theatre fairy tale: Ins Choi grew up working in various convenience stores after his parents immigrated to Scarborough from Seoul in 1975. As an adult, he made a first attempt at playwrighting with a story about a Korean family and their store, and spent a few years workshopping it before premiering it at last summer’s Fringe Festival—where it drew three-hour lineups, a spot in the Best of Fringe Uptown, and bidding wars from some of the city’s biggest and richest theatre companies. Last night, Choi’s Kim’s Convenience finally took off its glasses and let down its hair: it kicked off Soulpepper Theatre‘s fifteenth season as the company’s first original production, heralded as “a Toronto classic in the making.”
Kim’s Convenience is a snapshot of the Kim family at a crossroads. Once a teacher in Korea, Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) had to open a convenience store when he immigrated to Regent Park with a pregnant wife, Umma (Jean Yoon). Thirty-two years later, neighbourhood gentrification brings a condo developer to Kim’s doorstep. With a feisty photographer daughter Janet (Esther Jun), who has no desire to carry on the family business but perhaps wants to start one of her own, and estranged son Jung (Choi), who ran away when he was 16, Appa is faced with a sudden dilemma. The decision forces him to consider what his life’s work has been, what his story will be, and who will continue his legacy. It’s a play that’s unabashedly about a specific immigrant experience in Toronto at a particular time in history, which is why Koreans from across southern Ontario are flocking to see their story on stage. At the same time, it’s a heartfelt story of love, family, and coming-of-age that, according to ticket sales, many can relate to.
With most of the cast returning to their roles from Fringe (except for Clé Bennett, a TV actor in his stage debut), the play has kept its humble grassroots tone and style—with the added bonus of a proper set that realistically captures the oh-so-familiar local convenience store, down to the fluorescent lighting (designed by Ken Mackenzie), and beautifully refined and clear moments from director Weyni Mengesha. Basically, it’s the same play that blew away Fringe audiences, but with more.
That means letting two performances in particular lead the way. There’s Choi himself as Jung, in the small but powerful role of a sad man who regrets the mistakes of his youth. It’s a bleak, captivating performance that lets Choi show his acting chops along with his knack for writing. But carrying the show is Lee as the Kim patriarch, a man who learned his smarts not on the streets but in the aisles; who’s blatantly racist, yet kind of on to something; the best and worst father and husband who only expresses his emotions outright when physically forced. With an elongated “ouuu” in his accent, Lee has the audience in stitches; with an angry throw of Janet’s daytimer he fills us with fear; with a passing of the pricegun to the next generation, he has many in tears.
The atmosphere was downright jubilant last night: for Choi, who wore traditional Korean garments to greet the crowd after the show’s standing ovation; for Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz; and for Fringe executive director Gideon Arthurs. Choi already has his eyes on a cross-Canada tour of the show, even possibly venturing overseas. And with the Korean Consul General in the front row, that seems a promising possibility.
Though the play documents the disappearance of the Korean convenience store in North American cities, the story of Kim’s Convenience is just beginning.