Reviewed in this essay: Kim’s Convenience, from Soulpepper Theatre Company. Written by Ins Choi and directed by Weyni Mengesha. Until February 11th at Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Building 49, Toronto. Reopens May 17–June 9, 2012. 416-866-8666 or www.soulpepper.ca.
Building a play around a racial stereotype is risky business, especially when that business is a Korean-run convenience store and the stereotypes are side-splittingly funny and all too familiar. But its successful premiere at last summer’s Toronto Fringe Festival proved the risk worth it for Kim’s Convenience, by Korean-born Canadian playwright Ins Choi. The play kicked off Soulpepper Theatre Company’s 2012 season, and is now running at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
As inherently Torontonian a story as it is a depiction of a Korean migrant’s experience, the play benefits greatly from Choi’s acute grasp of the minutiae and small talk that make up the daily life of running a convenience store, as he fleshes out a wickedly funny and heartbreakingly poignant tale of this uniquely Canadian dream. Set designer Ken MacKenzie’s convenience store is situated smack in the centre of Toronto’s rapidly gentrifying Regent Park, and its colourfully stocked shelves display a fully realized portrait of the convenience store as a magical playland of daily necessities, like lottery cards and Korean-imported energy drinks.
Choi infuses the dialogue with snippets of proud moments in Korean history in the person of Mr. Kim, owner of the family business and Soup Nazi of the Korean convenience store world. With a thickly accented voice that commands authority Kim, or Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) is unintentionally hysterical as the self-ascribed gatekeeper of his family’s legacy. When he’s offered a handsome sum of money for his store by Mr. Lee (one of Clé Bennett’s varying characters), who insists the place won’t survive as condominiums and Wal-Mart move in around it, he rashly decides to leave the store to his daughter, Janet (Esther Jun), instead. His subsequent lesson to her about how to pinpoint thieving customers is a riotous example of the racial stereotyping that exists among the racially stereotyped.
Director Weyni Mengesha’s graceful production explores, and skewers, Appa’s vision of how life in Canada should have been—built on the common immigrant misconception that working solely for the benefit of the next generation will raise children that are equally willing to continue the favour in one’s old age. But dreams and times change, despite Appa refusing to accept that Janet, still single at 30, prefers to “take pictures” instead of wanting to take over the family store. His fast-talking wife Umma (Jean Yoon) is the stabilizing figure in the family, especially since their son, Jung (Choi), left 16 years earlier and extinguished his father’s last hope of relishing the Canadian dream (and creating a Kim’s Convenience dynasty).
The laughs are as powerful as the point in the subtext, and Choi’s script is already sealing itself into the canon of important Canadian works. (It’s also the first fully homebred original play to run in Soulpepper’s history). Kim’s Convenience paints only one community’s part of the kaleidoscope of immigrant experiences that comprise Toronto’s diverse narratives, but it will resonate with anyone who’s ever stepped inside a now-fabled Korean convenience store. Fortunately, Soulpepper will reprise the show from May 17 to June 9, after its well-deserved sold-out run closes February 11.