Kim's Convenience writer Ins Choi brings a Toronto sensibility to an Easter tradition, with his Subway Stations of the Cross.
It is a traditional practice, done at many churches during the Lenten season: remembering the journey of Jesus to his crucifixion, as described in the Bible.
But Ins Choi does it a little differently.
The Toronto-based actor and writer—perhaps best known for his play Kim’s Convenience—has spent the past several weeks performing his latest work, Subway Stations of the Cross, at various churches and other venues in Toronto and surrounding areas.
And while Choi’s one-man performance reflects on the life and death of Jesus Christ—similar to the tradition from which he’s adapted the title—his version incorporates some unorthodox material.
“It ranges from Superman, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Chopin, and Mendelssohn, to the etymology of bread in different languages…to the stations of the cross,” Choi explains. “Fourteen stations of the cross to a few subway stations of the TTC.”
During each performance, Choi talks about Jesus being placed in a tomb (the 14th station), then switches to describing underground train stops named after saints (“the 15th station of the TTC from Downsview: St. Andrew’s Station”). It’s one of many links between Bible history and present-day life that Choi creates in his performance.
He describes the monologues that make up a large part of the show as “meandering, connecting thoughts surrounding Jesus.”
Choi says the idea was born from a poem he wrote in 2008. As he continued to work on it and turn it into a performance, the voice that emerged was one of a homeless man. Choi says that’s only appropriate since, according to the Bible, Jesus did not have a home for part of his adult life.
“I think if Jesus was here today, he’d be a homeless man,” Choi says. “And he may look like that guy on the street.”
On Good Friday, Choi (pictured at right) took the stage in front of a couple hundred people at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Church in Kensington Market. He affected a slightly disoriented but thoughtful persona. He was wearing a rough coat, and his voice was gravelly.
Within the first few minutes, he had already sung a song in Hebrew accompanied by guitar, then broken into a rapid a capella version of Mendelssohn’s wedding march, which then turned into the theme song from Rocky, transitioned into Chopin’s famous funeral dirge, and then morphed into “The Imperial March” from Star Wars.
The remainder was just as unpredictable. One minute Choi’s performance was slow and deliberate. The next, he rhymed at lightning speed. The piece, which runs around 40 minutes, mixes music, monologues, and poetry, and includes singing in both Hebrew and Latin. There are moments of humour mixed into the solemnity. (For instance, the 17th station of the TTC: “from Finch, transfer at Bloor, transfer at St. George, overshoot once: St. Patrick.”)
Choi says he did not have concerns about taking material so entrenched in church history and adapting it into a more modern context. “Never did I think it was irreverent, taking something sacred and making it, for me, accessible,” he says.
Choi maintains it is crucial to ask what traditional values—like showing love or serving people—mean in a city like Toronto, and make them relevant to the audience. “We can’t do what they did a thousand years ago, or even one hundred years ago. It’s a different context. It needs people to adapt it,” he explains.
And while he says the piece is for all audiences, Choi thinks it is especially important for him to bring arts back into houses of worship. “I feel like the church is on the sidelines of mainstream culture,” he says. “The arts, movies, theatre— at one point, the church was at the centre of it. The Renaissance—they commissioned Michelangelo; they commissioned Leonardo. They were the producers of art back in the day.”
While the performances may be done for this year, Choi plans to continue developing the piece and hopes to eventually take it on tour across Canada. He is working on altering the script based on this year’s performances, and says he has been tweaking it over the last few weeks, making changes every time he brings it to the stage.
Good Friday’s version of the play ended with Choi creating a makeshift cross shape out of a microphone stand, coat, radio antenna, and bag of wine-soaked bread. He blew a shofar horn as he walked off the stage and out of the room, leaving the air ringing with what sounded like wailing.
So ended a performance that Choi hopes will inspire creativity in those who hear it. “It’s not preaching,” he says. “It’s not a lecture. I’m not telling people what to do. I’m not teaching them necessarily anything. That’s not my aim. It’s me, meditating.”
Photos by Krista Simpson.