by Lynn on October 26, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. Plays until Nov. 4.

Written by Ins Choi

Directed by Esther Jun

Set and costumes by Julia Kim

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by Maddie Bautista

Cast: Emeka Agada

Ins Choi

Vicki Kim

Leon Qin

Kelly J. Seo

This is the best production of this play that I have seen over the last 20 years. It’s full of the beating heart of the play, nuance, loving detail and wonderful talent.

Background. Kim’s Convenience is Ins Choi’s first play. He began writing it in 2005 as part of the Fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company Playwrights’ Unit and continued to develop it over the next several years. In 2010 Ins Choi sent the play to various Toronto theatres that rejected it. He submitted the play for the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival and won the New Play Contest. From there it was remounted by Soulpepper, toured the country and was made into a television series of the CBC. There have been awards along the way.

The play is a bittersweet immigrant story; of trying to fit in to a new life but still honouring the traditions of one’s culture; of love and forgiveness.

The Story. Mr. Kim (‘Appa’ in the programme, means ‘Father’ in Korean) has owned and operated his convenience store for 30 years. He is thinking of passing it on to his daughter Janet  to run. When she was a kid she helped often in the store, while also going to school to be a photographer. That is where her heart is—to be a photographer. She is now 30 years old, lives at home above the store and is indeed a photographer.

There is a son, Jung but he’s estranged from his father and they haven’t talked in a long time. Jung talks to his mother, (‘Umma’ in Korean), often going to church with her. He regrets the rift with his father and longs to come home.  

The Production. Julia Kim has designed a set that reminds us of every convenience store we have ever been in. There is a set layout to these stores, you can check. Because Mr. Kim-Appa (Ins Choi) is meticulous, the shelves are stocked and neat. I always thought that interesting. If the shelves are always fully stocked, doesn’t that seem like there have been few sales? I always wondered about that. But of course, the shelves are stocked because Mr. Kim is meticulous.

When Mr. Kim-Appa (I’ll refer to him this way since he’s referred to by both names depending on whom he is speaking to)  opens the store at 7 am Ins Choi as Mr. Kim-Appa enters from the back where the family apartment is. Ins Choi as Mr. Kim–Appa  is grey-haired, walks slowly—he wears sandals, socks, a work shirt and pants. He turns on the radio, (wonderful selection from sound designer, Maddie Bautista—of traffic reports in Toronto), sets out the lottery tickets and makes a cup of coffee using more sugar than a human should use for a cup of coffee. Director Esther Jun knows how to set up a visual joke beautifully and Ins Choi as Mr. Kim knows how to milk it. He opens a pack of sugar and holds it high over the cup and then adds more sugar from a dispenser, held even higher.

Mr. Kim-Appa has a polite, but distant relationship with his customers. One gentleman, Mr. Lee (?) (Emeka Agada) who is described as a Black man with an Asian name wants to buy the store for re-development. This makes Mr. Kim-Appa ponder his future and the store’s.  Mr. Kim-Appa also has a rather prickly, commanding relationship with Janet (Kelly J. Seo). He expects her to be a dutiful, obedient daughter, and she balks at his obstreperousness. She also would like to be paid for her time working in the store. There is dandy exchange between father and daughter about the actual economics of the situation. As Janet, Kelly J. Seo is impatient and loudly vocal with her Appa. Ins Choi as Mr. Kim-Appa is as vocal if not angry most of the time. One can appreciate that. He worries about the store. He is till hurt by his absent son. It’s a world crowding in on him and anger is the best way of venting. It’s a beautifully modulated performance because there are moments of tenderness. 

 Ins Choi as Mr. Kim-Appa is agile, a bit stooped from age and wear but a man who is in charge. His timing is impeccable; his gruffness is part of his humour as is his watchfulness. The accent and the turns of phrase are divine. He seems to have a keen sense of who is shoplifting from his store. The banter between Ins Choi as Mr. Kim- Appa and Kelly J. Seo as Janet is particularly bracing. They lob insults and stand their ground with grace and finesse. One does cringe at Mr. Kim’s –Appa’s assumptions of who will shoplift on the basis of race.

Vicki Kim as Umma plays the quiet peace-maker in the family. She is burdened with the rift between her husband and her son. She is aware of the prickliness between her daughter and husband. She has to keep the peace for all of them. Both parents speak to each other in Korean. There is no need for a translation—we get the gist when there is reference to “Janet” etc. It’s the banter of long-married husband and wife.

As Jung, Leon Qin has a sweetness mixed with the guilt of what he did to cause the rift. He is trying to make amends. When he comes home, he makes suggestions to his father about the store. Three is such longing in this wonderful performance. Suddenly new possibilities arise for Mr. Kim-Appa and the future. To give a sense of the detail in Esther Jun’s direction, Jung gives his Appa a photo that he knows Appa would appreciate. He presents the photo like an offering and when Appa takes it Leon Qin as Jung gives the subtlest of bows in respect. I found that breathtaking. The production is full of such tenderness.

Kim’s Convenience is partially autobiographical in that Ins Choi came to Canada with his family from Korea and his parents earned a living by working in an uncle’s convenience store. We all recognize our own family dramas in the Kim’s family drama. It’s about determination, tenacity, respect and love. A wonderful, wonderful production.

The Grand Theatre presents:

Opened Oct. 20, 2023

I saw it: Oct. 24, 2023.

Plays until: Nov. 4, 2023.

Running Time: 80 minutes (no intermission)

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