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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Is theatre dead?

Last week, I came across an interesting tweet from Toronto actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (recently featured in Soulpepper Theatre’s production of Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience), who posted the question: “Is Theatre Really Dead?” along with a link to this hysterically funny and thought-provoking YouTube video:

And it got me thinking. I know.  A dangerous thing. So please bear with me – this is a long post.

Joking aside, the ongoing debate about the state of theatre in Canada has become increasingly urgent in the face of theatre closures, funding cuts, the controversial dismissal of an artistic director by a theatre’s board, a continuing lack of diversity in casting, and the ever-present – and growing – challenge of attracting and retaining an audience.

I think theatre isn’t so much dead as going through the growing pains of transformation. This is a positive evolution. How we create and perceive theatre needs to change. Its survival depends on it.

Competition for audience has always been a big issue in a large city that has so much to offer in terms of live theatre, music and entertainment. Even the smaller theatre companies, which initially filled a void in terms of providing audiences with new, often edgier, more cutting-edge fare from lesser known and/or local playwrights – and at lower costs to the company and audience – have been facing increasing competition from other smaller companies. And all this during an economic climate that has people tightening their purse strings at the expense of things like arts and entertainment in order to pay for essentials. Some companies have attempted to remedy this challenge by partnering up with other companies, sharing infrastructure and saving on production costs.

But beyond this competition for audience is the evolving nature of the audience itself. Demographically, theatre subscribers tend to be older – with season subscriptions traditionally being accessible to those who could afford it and, perhaps more importantly, had a lifestyle that could accommodate fixing theatre attendance well in advance. Subscription packages – and theatre ticket pricing in general – have been revised in an attempt to accommodate and engage younger audiences, especially those under 30 years old, who have less discretionary income and don’t necessarily want to nail down their theatre schedule so far in advance. Still, we’re not seeing a significant increase in younger theatre-goers, so ticket prices and scheduling aren’t the only issues.

It’s no secret that theatre isn’t only in competition with other theatre for audience attention; it is in competition with other entertainment media – and, more than ever, in competition with hi-tech media. Even movie theatres and certainly video stores, which are all but extinct except for some hardy indie locations, are feeling the pinch of cheap or free, convenient access to movies afforded – legally or otherwise – by the web and services like Netflix. And competition with other media is especially strong when it comes to younger audiences, who are more tech-savvy and wired than any audience before – and at a much younger age.

Multi-media theatre productions – featuring onscreen text and/or video, multiple arts disciplines and live music on stage – are going a ways toward engaging new, and younger, audiences. But is the addition of hi-tech audio-visual elements and effects enough to draw in – and sustain – a whole new generation of audience? And how do theatres avoid alienating an existing audience that may prefer its theatre productions done up old-school, without all the “bells and whistles” of extra tech, and who come to the theatre for the comfort of an expected, classic presentation?

The socio-cultural relevance of theatre has been kept alive by women’s and children’s theatres, and companies focusing on the stories and experiences of Black, LGBT and Asian communities, as well as those that seek to produce plays of socio-political significance. In terms of “colour-blind” casting, however, most of the larger mainstream theatres are, by and large, woefully behind walking the talk. What may be an open casting policy encouraging diversity on paper is not being reflected on stage. One could also argue that there is a double standard regarding the casting of straight actors in gay roles and casting out gay actors in straight roles. Here again, it is largely the smaller niche market theatre companies that are championing the presentation of diverse stories and/or walking the walk of diversity policy in their casting process.

The good news is – it’s all storytelling. And in watching and hearing the story, each member of the audience becomes a participant in that story.

This is where theatre can distinguish itself. The experience of seeing live actors performing in a play has something that watching a story unfold on a screen does not: flesh and blood immediacy, and in-your-face emotion. And I’m not talking about live interaction with the actors here. Audience participation can be tricky at the best of times, and it’s hard to say whether an audience that is used to interacting with characters on a computer screen will take well to a live character. In any event, it can be scary to witness live emotion. But it can also be exhilarating and moving. The same intense or funny scene played out onscreen and on stage, with the same actors, differ in the sense of immediacy. In a live performance, you can experience those moments as a direct viewer, with only the audience and the edge of the stage separating you from the characters. In some cases, you can see and hear them breathe, sweat and register change of mood in a flicker. All happening in real time, with live actors right in front of you. Even the way a theatre smells is different – hints of paint, stage make-up, that smell of hot dust on a lighting instrument. Theatre is a living, breathing, organic thing.

The way we create and perceive theatre is changing. But, since theatre is a social beast, change can be slow – and dreadfully so at times. Change can also be scary, and – especially in the case of diversity in casting – that fear can stall action toward doing what is right in favour of doing what is easy. Sometimes the status quo just feels too damn comfy to give up, no matter how detrimental it might be. Isn’t it enough to simply hope that it will all work out in the end?

Experiencing a performance with other people, even in a room full of strangers, the collective energy is palpable, whether in a movie theatre or live theatre. Add to that the give and take of energy between actors during a live theatre performance – and between the actors and the audience – and you have an even more electric hum in the atmosphere. A live performance provides the kind of buzz that you just can’t get from a performance onscreen. It’s a rush unlike any other.

Maybe that’s what theatre needs to promote in order to attract new audiences. Not the cheaper tickets or mini-subscriptions or multi-media presentations. Canadian theatre needs to promote that rush, while remaining socially relevant and reflecting the faces of its people. That electric, living, breathing rush. Theatre can do this.

What do you think?

With thanks to Paul for the Twitter chat that followed his posting of the vid and my response to it.