Saturday, January 21, 2012

Out From The Fringes: Soulpepper's Kim's Convenience

Janet (Esther Jun) and Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee).

A good friend of mine once invited me to a play because she needed to see some “life.” And to her, theatre was all about “life.” Kim’s Convenience, a new Canadian play about a Korean family in Toronto, is certainly full of “life.”

Written by Ins Choi, Kim's Convenience, which debuted at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company on Thursday, is the story of the Kim family led by patriarch Appa, his wife Umma and their children, Jung and Janet. Appa originally left South Korea and immigrated to Canada with his wife and unborn son and they open a convenience store. In a poignant and funny interlude in the middle of the play, Appa, played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and Umma, played by Jean Yoon, perform a memory scene under spotlight. They recall looking at the convenience store with great hope and so they try to come up with a name. (By the time they settle on Kim’s Convenience, Appa has considered several names including “Kim Horton’s”.) This scene, which resonates in the play, is a beautiful distillation of the dream every new Canadian hopes for in making a better life in a new land.

Kim’s Convenience is about the first generation Korean immigrant. Mr. Kim reflects the drive, intelligence and passion of owning his own business, and the play is based on writer Ins Choi’s own family. Choi’s father ran the store during the day while taking English classes at night. His mother took care of him and his two sisters while living above the store. Choi’s roots were in the west end of Toronto in suburbia. Kim’s Convenience takes place in Regent Park, a downtown neighbourhood in transition, as condos begin to replace low-income housing. Consequently, the play looks and feels authentic.

Jung (Ins Choi)
The crux of the story is the generational divide between the parents and the children. The parents are strict and want their children to take over the store but the kids have other interests completely removed from the business. Janet (Esther Jun) wants to be a photographer. Her brother Jung (Choi) is the lost son who had an argument with his father forcing him to leave years earlier. In the play, we learn that they haven’t spoken to one another in a long time; one as stubborn as the other. But the play is totally centered around Appa (Mr. Kim) played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. Lee’s performance takes on a caustic shape almost from the get-go. Since English is his second language, Choi has written the character to speak with a very heavy accent in point form style. Mr. Kim is a likable guy in spite of his edginess and I would have liked more quieter, intimate scenes between him and his family. But Mr. Kim has a business to run while stopping thieves and calling the police for illegally parked cars. His belligerent style wasn’t too overbearing considering he’s on stage for most of the 85-minute duration.

Nevertheless, the climatic scene when Jung returns to see his father for the first time in years was too stiff. In it, Jung answers a series of questions that he calls the “Korean” test where Appa throws out a series of dates and numbers as Jung tells him why they are important facts about Korea. It’s a well-written scene, but the characters were stuck too far apart for the exchange, barely moving. Now, distance usually means tension between two characters when they face off against one another. But it doesn't work here because Jung is trying to reconnect to his father at this important moment, not staying further away. In other words, the action doesn't suit the text. And it's a sign that this new play is still a work in progress.

Jean Yoon (Umma) and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (Appa)
Last summer, it debuted during the Toronto Fringe Festival to great acclaim. I didn’t see that version, but I know the Fringe productions, as a rule, are efforts to find their shape at the best of times. Part of the charm of going to the Fringe Festival is to see new, underdeveloped work. That said, this play was pretty tight dramatically, with a solid, cliché-free script. Most of the cast members were in the original version last summer, so they were grounded, fully realized performances. Esther Jun plays Janet with confidence and gusto. Her moments verbally sparring with Appa make for a strong opening. Ins Choi, who plays Jung, is well mannered and gaining our empathy for having a lousy job and volatile relationship with his father. Clearly he wants to reconnect with his old man. His scene with Umma, (Yoon) in the church that brought us the background to his troubled life, is special.

As the first original Canadian play ever produced by Soulpepper, Kim’s Convenience still has some rough edges. This flaw was revealed by the awkwardness of one scene featuring Cle Bennett as Alex, one of 4 characters he played during the night. Alex is the tough kid who grows up and becomes a police officer. He was Jung’s best friend in high school, and came to the store because Mr. Kim dialed 911 to have an illegally parked car removed. Alex becomes smitten with Janet, now 30, who used to hang out with them as a 10-year-old. This relationship sets up a scene of farcical proportions between Appa and Alex, as the proud storeowner tries to make him propose to his daughter, by literally twisting his arm. While this move may have worked in the context of a Fringe play, where mistakes are forgiven, this professional production needs a better treatment.

Nevertheless, Kim’s Convenience proves it is possible to see a play directly reflecting the contemporary Canadian experience. It’s the story of a Korean family, but it could easily be the story of any European or Asian family’s transition to a new culture. Since 1970, Canada’s so-called multi-cultural society has been under a microscope, because it too, like the play, is a work in progress. Immigration policy has shaped the urban centers of this country more than any other government program, making Canada one of the most diverse societies in the world. Kim’s Convenience offers audiences a chance to understand the diversity of Toronto, the complexity of adjusting to a new society and the importance of family.

Kim’s Convenience runs until February 11th at Soulpepper.

- John Corcelli is a writer, theatre director and broadcaster. He’s currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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