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Jane Enkin


by Jane Enkin, March 18, 2014

Kim's Convenience by Ins Choi


Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Mainstage to April 4, 2014


What is my story? Hm? What is story of me, Mr. Kim? My whole life is this store. Everybody know this store, they know me. This store is my story. And if I just sell store, then my story is over. Who is Mr. Kim? Nobody know that. You take over my store, my story keep going.”


What is your story? Who will carry your story into the future? Those questions are central to the warm, pain-filled and joy-filled play delighting audiences at RMTC.


Kim's Convenience tells the story of one Korean immigrant family, one aging patriarch with his wife and his adult children, and casts a gentle, funny and charming light on the tensions of Canadian families that bridge cultures and generations. Many works of art have covered this territory, but people don't get tired of hearing this theme, perhaps because it is so very Canadian. It's refreshing to see a production that is not a nostalgia piece, about immigrants from many decades ago, but set in our time. I loved noting that the parents speak Korean to each other in the script; this also emphasized the fact that they speak English with their children.


Paul Sun-Hyung Lee plays the Appa of the family, naive in some ways, incredibly perceptive in others. He blusters, he grieves, he has boasts, he learns. This a tour-de-force performance by the actor who created the role and has seen it through from workshop stages, to great success as a Fringe Play, to mainstage presentations across Canada. The actor is thrilled to have the opportunity to play such a richly written character, drawing on family and community members he knows well.


Chantelle Han plays his daughter Janet, deeply connected to her parents yet trying to create an independent life for herself. The struggles of Janet and her Appa to communicate and to dominate provide some of the most intense drama and greatest laughs in the play.


Jane Luk subtly plays the Umma of the family, quietly pleasing and supporting everyone, (although she yells as well as the rest of them,) sneaking in wry jokes.


Ins Choi, the playwright of Kim's Convenience, plays Jung, the estranged son. At most times subdued and broken, he offers an amazing moment when he comes to life recalling his glory on his high school soccer team. “Game one, Haninjangno Church: Pow! conquered. Game two, Dong Bu Church: Pow! Conquered...”


Andre Sills, tall, handsome and charismatic, plays a range of characters from the world beyond the family – customers, a businessman who suggests that Appa sell his property and get out before the neighbourhood changes, and a young police officer who turns out to be an old family friend.


The plot is quite predictable and often telegraphed, so the strengths of the show are the characters, the fiery emotions, and the laughs. The ending is rather abrupt. I would have appreciated more time with Umma, who mostly conveys her perspective through hints. Her quiet presence, though, makes sense in the context. Jung, the son, is reticent and not very engaging. This is clearly part of the script – he is diminished and disoriented, perhaps suffering from a new father's version of postpartum depression, definitely suffering from being cut off from his family roots.


I was reminded of Death of a Salesman, and then I read that Choi was rehearsing that classic while he was writing Kim's Convenience. Choi's play veers away from despair, reminding us that real lives in Canada are not tragedy nor comedy, but hold intense moments of each along with the mundane.


The play was even more reminiscent of the work of David Mamet. Choi is a musician, who works a lot with the rhythm of wordplay and physical interactions, double takes and meaningful looks. The rapid fire Mamet-style exchanges are delicious.


JANET: Grow up, Appa!

APPA: YOU grow up.

JANET: Did you even think about--

APPA: YOU think.

JANET: What?

APPA: YOU what.

JANET: Stop doing that!

APPA: YOU stop.

JANET: I'm not doing anything.

APPA: YOU doing.

JANET: I'm just talking.

APPA: YOU talking.

JANET: Appa, that doesn't even make any --

APPA: YOU doesn't...”


A favourite scene of mine began with the mother in church, singing a hymn. The way she kept her gaze firmly out to the audience, (presumably toward the altar), as her estranged son entered, made me think at first that his appearance was a memory. The physical distance they maintained was eery.


I began early on to compare and contrast – if this were a Jewish family, how would the script look? The ways individuals see family and the family business as their own personal story would be present in a Jewish narrative. The communication by yelling would be there – sometimes because you're in different rooms and need to make yourself heard; sometimes because you're face to face and still feel you are not being heard. The long grudges against a wartime enemy – Appa's mistrust of anyone involved with selling or buying a Japanese car sounds just like Jewish people who would never consider owning a car from Germany. The pride in the achievements of “members of the tribe” -- comically and informatively shown in the play through “The Korea history test.”


APPA: 1592.

JUNG: Oh, uh that's Admiral Yi-Soon Shin invents the Turtle Ship.

APPA: 66

JUNG: 1966 World Cup Soccer, North Korea beats Italy.

APPA: Sea of Japan.

JUNG: Sea of Japan doesn't exist...”


Something different is the lack of physical affection in the family – parents don't embrace or touch children, or even get close to them except in anger; husband and wife don't touch as they pass each other. I asked the actors and the playwright after the show, and they said that restraint of this kind is tradtional in Korean families. The playwright pointed out that Koreans, like other Asians, bow rather than shaking hands.


Paul Sun-Hyung Lee emphasized that this tradition is based on a different understanding of love in families. Instead of hugging and saying, “I love you,” traditional families expected love to be demonstrated through actions and behaviour. “Love is always there,” he emphasized, asking me to see how much Appa cares about Janet, worries for her and respects her. That said, there was also a clear hierarchy in traditional Korean families with the father in charge. All this has changed for Korean-background people raised in Canada, one of the sources of generational confusion in the play.


I think it would be terrific if a new immigrant member of Winnipeg's Jewish community would take on the challenge of writing an exploration of family experiences. In an Argentinian-Canadian family, for example, one generation might speak Yiddish, the next Spanish, and the Canadian born children English; in an Israeli-Canadian family, the elders might be secular Russian-speakers, another generation might speak Israeli Hebrew, and the Canadian-raised children might be English speakers educated to read the Tanach and Siddur.


I enjoyed my opportunity to speak with some people involved in the production. Andre Sills was excited about the broud appeal of the show. “I can always tell when there's a large number of Koreans in the audience,” he said, since they get different aspects of the humour. But Canadians with any immigrant background have a strong identification with the show.


Ins C hoi writes, “Kim's Convenience is my love letter to [my parents] and to all first generation immigrants who call Canada their home.”


By the way, I found that people with a background in small retail identified with the play too. The set and props recreate the convenience store in exquisite detail, and there are some great laughs in Appa's interactions with customers and Janet's cringes at his style.


Given the traditional restraint of Korean families, it was especially lovely to read in the playwright's program notes, “After a performance of Kim's Convenience at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival, my parents came up to me, hugged me and said, “We are very proud of you. Thank you.”


Quotations are from the published script, available in the lobby for $15.


Kim's Convenience continues at RMTC through April 4, 2014


Ins Choi's solo spoken word performance Subway Stations of the Cross will be presented on Sunday, March 23 at 8 pm at St. Margaret's Anglican Church , 160 Ethelbert Street in support of Agape Table

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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