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.

Lots to see – art & theatre in Toronto

According to the WordPress post counter, this will be my 300th post and I wanted to give a shout out to some upcoming/continuing art and theatre in Toronto before I go offline for a bit.

The InspiraTO Festival of 10-minute plays opens tomorrow (Fri, June 1) on the Alumnae Theatre main stage and runs until June 10. For full program and reservation details, please visit their website: http://www.inspiratofestival.ca/

You still have a chance to catch the following:

Stockholm – Nightwood Theatre/Seventh Stage co-production continues till June 3 at the Tarragon Extra Space: http://www.nightwoodtheatre.net/index.php/whats_on/stockholm

Pieces – Cue 6 Productions play continues at Unit 102 Theatre until June 9: http://cue6.ca/

Art of the Danforth continues along Danforth Ave., from Greenwood to Cedarvale, until June 10: http://www.artofthedanforth.com/

Award-winning play Kim’s Convenience continues its Soulpepper run at The Young Centre until July 4: http://www.soulpepper.ca/performances/12_season/Kim%27s_Convenience.aspx

For the plays, advance ticket booking is always a good idea, especially since these are some popular shows.

Back in about a week with more arts/culture/entertainment adventures. Have a good one, all.

Kim’s Convenience a pleasure the second time around

So after not getting on top of the ticket ordering in time to see its previous Soulpepper run, I finally got out to see Kim’s Convenience at the Young Centre last night. And this time, I took two pals Kerri and Ty along for the ride.

Weyni Mengesha directed the Soulpepper run (playwright/actor Ins Choi directed for Toronto Fringe run last year) with most of the same cast from the Fringe premiere, with the exception of Clé Bennett, appearing on stage for the first time (well, since high school), who took on the role of Alex and various other characters. Once again, this outstanding cast gave us a truly funny, poignant and real performance. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is brilliant as Mr. Kim (aka Appa) – bringing us a stoic, stubborn, hard-working man with a quick temper and sharp wit – not to mention awesome martial arts skills – and a sweet guy under the gruff veneer. Jean Yoon returns as Mrs. Kim (Umma), creating a wife and mother who is tiny in stature but big on love, strength and support – and do not piss her off. Lee and Yoon have lovely, tender moments as husband and wife, speaking to each other in Korean during private moments – and in the context of the scene, understandable to everyone in the audience. Other favourite exchanges are between Kim and his daughter Janet (Esther Jun), at times hilarious – from their quick-fire banter to Kim’s imparting his “steal” or “no steal” theory – to combative and intensely fond. Jun is a fun-loving spitfire as Janet, a 30-year-old single gal living at home with her parents and an aspiring photographer, is smart, funny and itching to get out of the store and have a life, but she loves her family dearly despite the generational and cultural differences with her folks. Clé Bennett does an excellent job of juggling four very different characters, including the cop Alex, a childhood friend of Jung’s who now sees his friend’s kid sister Janet with a man’s eyes – and likes what he sees – giving us a nice combo of good-humour and shy suiter. Choi reprises his role as Jung, the son who at first is only spoken of in terms of his troubled teen years and an incident involving his father before he left home at 16. We see him for the first time meeting his mother, in secret, at the family’s local Korean church, a church that is closing due to condo development in the neighbourhood – the same evolution that Kim faces when he is offered a buy-out for the store from a developer. Choi brings a nicely rounded prodigal son tempered by feelings of nostalgia – and a sense of pain regarding the separation from his birth family and disillusionment with his own life and family.

Seeing Kim’s Convenience a second time (I saw it during its Toronto Fringe run last year) was a pleasure – and I got to relive my favourite moments with the Kim family, with two members of my chosen family, who were both seeing it for the first time. And that’s always cool too – watching the reactions of folks who are visiting Kim’s Convenience for the first time.

The run has been extended to July 4 – please visit the website for dates and reservations: http://www.soulpepper.ca/performances/12_season/kim%27s_convenience.aspx

Next up, Kim’s Convenience goes to The Grand Theatre in London, Ontario for a run Jan 15 – Feb 3, 2013: http://www.grandtheatre.com/index.php/mainstage-theatre/2012-13-mainstage-season/kims-convenience/  And let’s send out some positive thoughts for a national – and even international – tour.

According to Mr. Kim’s theory of “steal” or “no steal” – I’m a “steal”. And you’ll just have to go see Kim’s Convenience for yourself to see what I’m talking about.

Send in the clone

What can I tell you, busy times – again – and I’m wishing I had a clone so I could get to all the stuff I want to see.

Alas, I am still working within the limited construct of this single corporeal self and the rules of social triage dictate that I must prioritize. And some events just won’t make it.

Case in point: two friends and I took our chances on rush tickets for Soulpepper’s production of Kim’s Convenience on Monday night. Well, in the end, it was just me as neither of them could make it. I was #3 for rush tix – but the guy who was first in line scooped up the last two seats. Took a chance that they’d have some cancellations or no-shows – and spent some time starting to read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking on my new eReader – but no luck. Oh, well. At least I caught the Fringe production. Would have really liked to see it again, but personal scheduling and ticket availability being what they are, it’s not going to happen. My advice: get your seats in advance or you’ll miss out. http://www.soulpepper.ca/performances/12_season/kim%27s_convenience.aspx

Luckily, I did purchase an advance ticket for Nightwood Theatre’s production of The Penelopiad – and will be off to Buddies in Bad Times to see that tonight. I also strongly advise advance ticket purchases for this. http://buddiesinbadtimes.com/show.cfm?id=774

Also coming up: adorable and talented singer/songwriter Meghan Morrison is doing a gig at Cherry Cola’s on Friday night. Definitely a good thing to come out for. Here’s Meghan’s website: http://www.meghanmorrisonmusic.com/fr_home.cfm

My Saturday will be filled up with a few gatherings with friends: a brunch, a dinner and a birthday party (at a pub with karaoke). And it occurred to me that I haven’t been to the movies in a while, so maybe Sunday.

Will be back with the scoop on these and any other upcoming adventures soon…