Love, family, forgiveness & legacy—falling in love with Kim’s Convenience over & over again

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Jean Yoon & Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

Everybody loves Appa. When Paul Sun-Hyung Lee made his entrance as the Kim patriarch (marking his 423rd performance in the role) for Soulpepper Theatre’s remount of Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience, the packed house in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre erupted into applause.

I first fell in love with Kim’s Convenience during its sold-out run in the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival; arriving super early at the Bathurst Street Theatre (now the Randolph Academy) box office with my 10-play pass in hand (this was before my media accreditation). Then I had the pleasure of seeing Soulpepper’s production in May 2012 and fell in love all over again. I’m also a huge fan of the Canadian Screen Award-nominated TV series on CBC. So I was very happy when I, along with my friend Lizzie (who’d also seen it onstage twice before), had the opportunity to see it again last night.

Directed by Weyni Mengesha, Kim’s Convenience takes us along a day in the life of a mom and pop variety store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. For those familiar with the TV show, there really is a Kim’s Convenience, located at Queen/Sherbourne—and the exterior of the store is used in the show. Unlike the TV series, however, the play is set around 10 years later, with Janet (Rosie Simon) and Jung (Richard Lee)* now in their early 30s. And Appa, who is nearing retirement, starts his day receiving an offer from a local real estate-connected friend Mr. Lee (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) to buy the store; and finds himself considering the future—especially in the face of urban development and neighbourhood gentrification. He and Umma (Jean Yoon) have a big decision to make. Do they sell? And, if they don’t sell, who will take over the store? For Appa, Kim’s Convenience is his story, his legacy.

Janet, still living at home and working as a professional photographer, has no interest in pursuing the family business. And her older brother Jung hasn’t been seen or heard from since he left home at 16—a point that comes up when a police officer named Alex (Rowe) arrives at the store to answer a 911 call Janet made at Appa’s insistence over an illegally parked Japanese-made car. Alex was a friend of Jung’s when they were kids, and they’d since lost touch; and this chance reunion with the Kim family paves the way for an opportunity for Janet, who used to follow him and Jung around like a puppy when they were kids.

Generational clashes of the immigrant parents vs. first generation Canadian children variety emerge. Appa, who was a teacher back in Korea, opened the store and worked seven days a week with no vacations in order to give his family a better life in Canada. Appa’s and Umma’s sacrifices and struggles were all for their children, and things didn’t turn out how they’d hoped. Janet is 30, still single and working in a job that Appa finds questionable. And their hopes for their son were destroyed when an altercation between Appa and Jung turned violent, and Jung left home and never came back. Appa has a temper, evidenced in a fight between him and Janet over what is owed to whom after years of service at the store.

Umma has secretly been staying in touch with Jung, who is still working at a car rental place—a job he hates—and now the father of a two-month-old boy. The two have a poignant and revealing meeting at their local Korean church, where the family sang together at church events; Jung alerting his presence by joining his mother in a beautiful Korean duet. It’s the last downtown Korean church, and it’s closing after the land was sold to developers; the remaining churches are all now in the suburbs. It’s a time of change and upheaval, for the family and the neighbourhood—and everyone has some choices to make about the future. And, in the end, Appa realizes that his story isn’t about the store—it’s about his children.

Such beautiful, solid work from the cast. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee has been the only Appa, performing throughout multiple remounts, Canada-wide tours and the TV series; the role was made for him and fits him like a glove. I can’t picture anyone else playing Appa. An outspoken, opinionated man possessing of a sharp mind and an eye for detail, Appa is a keen observer of human nature, with a head full of facts about Korean history and a mouth full of words of condemnation for Japan. Despite his quick temper and abrupt manner, he’s a good man with a cheeky sense of humour; and concerned about the security of his family and community. Yoon, who has been Umma to his Appa on stage and on the small screen, is a perfect match and complement as family matriarch Mrs. Kim. A gentle and devout soul, with the patience of a saint, Umma works behind the scenes of her family life to keep her family safe—even if secretly and from afar, as in the case with Jung.

Simon gives a feisty, energetic performance as Janet, who has the wit to hold her own in mercurial, philosophical—often hilarious—banter with Appa. An independent young woman who can hold her own, she pushes back when her work, which she loves, gets called into question. Richard Lee does a great job mining Jung’s layers of conflict; restless, adrift and now a father himself, regret and longing come to the surface. Like his father, he too must consider the future—for himself and his young family.

Rowe does an awesome job playing four very different characters: store customers Rich (who gets schooled on the difference between ginseng and insam) and Jamaican Mike (who gets schooled on “steal”); the affable and empathetic Mr. Lee; and Alex the cop, who finds himself looking at Janet differently now that they’re both grown up (and gets schooled in courting in a hysterically unusual way by Appa).

It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s genuine. And even though it’s about a Korean Canadian family living in Toronto, the universal themes of love, family, forgiveness and legacy resonate no matter who you are or where you come from. And the standing ovation Kim’s Convenience got last night spoke volumes about the love audiences have for the show.

Kim’s Convenience continues the Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre; booking in advance is strongly recommended. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the 2017 production trailer:

And while you’re at it, check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on Stageworthy Podcast.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Kim’s Convenience to New York City’s 42nd Street in July.

*Ins Choi will be playing Jung for select performances: Feb 23 at 8pm, Feb 24 at 8pm, and Feb 25 at 2pm and 8pm.

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SummerWorks: The painful truth on the road to reconciliation in beautiful & compelling The Living

Cast of The Living, photo by Paul Lampert
Cast of The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

How can we move on if we can’t accept the impossible?

Brown paper, like fallen leaves, strewn across the floor – a struggling landscape. Two shrouded bodies, still, unbreathing – the dead. This is the sight on the playing area as you enter the Theatre Centre Incubator space – the stage set for the premiere of Colleen Wagner’s The Living, directed by Ines Buchli for the living project in this SummerWorks run.

The play is dedicated to the women and girls of Rwanda who Wagner met during her travels in Africa – and who asked her to be their storyteller. To tell of what happened after the genocide. The rebuilding. The caring for orphans. The system of transformative justice whereby “perpetrator” becomes part of the “victim’s” life in a new, positive relationship dynamic – healing, reconciling. And maybe even finding redemption and forgiveness.

Anita La Selva in The Living - photo by Paul Lampert
Anita La Selva in The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

Jacqui (Miriam Fernandes) and Henry (Kaleb Alexander) have known each other since they were children, and their memories of their times together take a brutal turn when, on opposite sides of the genocide, Henry becomes a “perpetrator” and Jacqui becomes a “victim.” Henry saves her from the killers only to become part of the rabid mob that kills Jacqui’s father and brother, and one man – a neighbour – rapes her mother (Anita La Selva), leaving her infected with HIV. But then something impossible happens. Henry and Jacqui fall in love.

The Living Beryl Bain Wayne Ward Stephanie Jung photo by Paul Lampert
Beryl Bain, Wayne Ward & Stephanie Jung in The Living – photo by Paul Lampert

The community is in a brittle, fragile state as formerly imprisoned men return home, some still harbouring anger and hate, simmering in their perceptions of the wrong-doing and culpability of the people they sought to exterminate. Three spirits– murdered teenage sisters – emerge on the scene. Restless. Living their deaths over and over again. Played with startling intensity by Beryl Bain, Gabrielle Graham and Stephanie Jung; like the Furies, they haunt, taunt, whisper and hiss for the truth.

Lovely work from this ensemble. Fernandes (luminous in her positive demeanour and fearlessness as Jacqui) and Alexander (repentant and sheepish as Henry, pushing beyond his deep sense of shame towards love) have beautiful chemistry, their conversations taking on a lyrical, poetic tone; two young people struggling to rebuild their lives after the horrors – striving, but hopeful to live in peace. La Selva is heartbreaking as Jacqui’s mother; sick and broken, waiting for death and afraid of facing it alone. As their neighbour Leopold, Wayne Ward brings a complexity of character; bitter and unrepentant after serving his time in prison, he hides with his fear at the bottom of a bottle, leaving his wife with the burden of being the household breadwinner. Cindy Block gives a poignant performance as his wife, a woman once abandoned by her husband’s violence and now abandoned by his hatred of the world, desperately trying to make ends meet as she lives in denial of her own horrid memories and suspicions.

Françoise Balthazar is marvelous and strong as the local barkeep, now running the business alone as her husband continues serving time in jail. Tough-talking and suffering no fools, she is hurt and lonely – and, like her neighbour, feeling the guilt and shame of not speaking up during the rampage to try and stop it. Richard Lee does a nice job with the layers of the town preacher, a  man who has chosen a life of religious service as his path to redemption. His words of love and forgiveness are not entirely selfless, though – including his interest in Jacqui, which while somewhat comical, has a dark edge to it.

And the multicultural casting has the effect of placing this story beyond the borders of any one country, any single ethnicity. The atrocities and the aftermath could happen anywhere.

With shouts to Shawn Kerwin (set and costume design) and Erika Batdorf (movement).

The painful truth on the road to reconciliation in Colleen Wagner’s beautiful and compelling premiere of The Living.

The Living continues at the Theatre Centre Incubator until Aug 16 – check here for the detailed schedule.

Riveting, jarringly honest & moving – EN(LIVE)N Productions’ Frozen

Last night, I saw the final preview performance of EN(LIVE)N Productions’ run of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, directed by Andrew Freund, at The Box Toronto – and it was a gripping, poignant and thought-provoking trip.

The stage is set with seating for the audience along the length of the intimate space, on both sides, and throughout the centre. Actor Alexander Saridag, who we see later as the prison guard, suggests seating as people enter. Hanging from the lighting grid are various items, some of which are props and others denoting a specific place: children’s toys, family photographs, personal items from a purse or briefcase, glass wind chimes with mini bottles of booze attached, a micro audio recorder and tapes, videotapes carefully sealed in clear plastic bags, two rope nooses. There is an eerie, low-volume soundtrack playing in the background. A howling wind? Screeching children? Playing? Terrified? The other three actors pace the space. All creating a sense of anxious, curiosity-filled anticipation.

As Freund points out in his program notes, Frozen is a memory play. Through a series of monologues, during which the actors often speak directly to the audience, as well as two-hander scenes, we follow the lives and thoughts of three people. Agnetha (Lynn Zeelenberg) is an American academic, studying serial killers using both psychological and neurological examination; Nancy (Lavetta Griffin) is a British mother who’s dealing with the trauma of a missing 10-year-old daughter; and Ralph (Peter Nelson), also a Brit, a rough and snake-like charming loner with troubling sexual proclivities.
Each character is compelling in his/her own way – and performed with jarring honesty and great respect by a fine cast. Zeelenberg does an excellent job of juggling Agnetha’s conflicting emotions; an academic struggling with her own loss and sins even as she studies and lectures on one of the most reviled criminal types imaginable. And her scenes with Ralph are layered with a tense curiosity, a driven sense of exploration, and a touching, nurturing quality. Griffin does a lovely job as Nancy, going from put-upon housewife and mother, to living the emotional turmoil of the loss of her youngest daughter, to crusading activist. Like Agnetha, Nancy is also seeking answers – and, even more so, closure. Nelson is both mesmerizing and repulsive as Ralph, who has a certain bizarre logic to his perversity – a method to his madness. Ralph is unable to forge true human connections, and Nelson does a beautiful job of revealing Ralph’s humanity as he responds to the women’s attempts to connect, both intellectually and emotionally, with a combination of boyish confusion, longing and repulsion. Nice work from Saridag, doing multiple duty as our host/usher, set and props valet, and the silent but expressive Guard.

With shouts to the design team: Natalia Tcherniak (set), Claire McMillan (costumes), Eric Sullivan (lighting) and Dave Fitzpatrick (sound and photography).

Riveting, moving and gut-wrenchingly real – relieved with snatches of dark humour and the foibles of everyday life – Frozen holds no punches in its intense examination of memory, loss, sex crime and forgiveness.

EN(LIVE)N Productions’ Frozen opens tonight (April 5) and continues until April 20 at The Box Toronto. Tickets are $20 and available online. Go see this.

Production stills by David A. (aka Dave) Fitzpatrick:

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