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Canuck 'Kim's Convenience' play gets celebrity customer and interest from TV

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Ins Choi, Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Grace Lynn Kung star in Soulpepper's Kim's Convenience.

SOULPEPPER THEATRE COMPANY Enlarge Image

Ins Choi, Jean Yoon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Grace Lynn Kung star in Soulpepper's Kim's Convenience.

TORONTO - Two years after its debut in Toronto, the hit homegrown play "Kim's Convenience" -- about a Korean-Canadian family and its convenience store -- is still very much open for business.

And it's snagged the attention of the TV industry as well as a certain celebrity who wants to bring it to the U.S.

Toronto playwright-actor Ins Choi's charming stage comedy-drama was a smash when it debuted at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival, winning the New Play Contest and the Patron's Pick award. That led to a sold-out showcase and then a remount at the city's Soulpepper Theatre Company, followed by two Dora Award nominations and the Toronto Theatre Critics trophy for best new Canadian play.

Now, the touching tale is packing houses and an emotional punch (Choi said he's seen audience members sobbing) on a national tour that's directed by Weyni Mengesha and next runs at southern Ontario's Port Hope Festival Theatre from July 11 to July 28.

It's also been published into book form by House of Anansi Press, and it's being developed for a TV comedy series, says Choi.

"There's some (TV) development happening, which I can't talk about, but it's in the works," the 39-year-old teased in a recent interview.

Choi also revealed that "Hawaii Five-0" star Daniel Dae Kim recently saw the show during its third remount at Soulpepper and loved it so much, he wants to run it in Honolulu, where his series shoots.

"He's a producer, too, so he was like ... 'I want to bring this to the stage, to Hawaii!'" he said, mimicking Kim's excitement. "I'm like, 'Bring it, man -- take it, it's all yours! Go, run with it, we'll come!'"

And to think, Choi once doubted whether he would ever get to stage the critically praised story of a Korean father struggling with changes within his family as well as their community of Regent Park.

The Korean-born, Toronto-raised graduate of York University's theatre school started writing "Kim's Convenience" as a vignette in 2005 under a playwriting unit in the Fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre company.

His motivation? To create an opportunity for himself in a theatre landscape he felt was low on plays written by -- and featuring parts for -- Asian-Canadians.

"I wrote it so that I could have a job, so I could get paid, so there would be a vehicle for me," said Choi, who plays the estranged son in the show. "Because no one else is writing a vehicle for me."

Several years of writing, editing and workshopping for the piece followed, as did various other theatre jobs and family obligations (he had two children during that time).

"I gave up on it many times, I celebrated its finish many times, thought it was done," said Choi. "In 2010 I thought I was finished and I put together a package and sent it to all the major theatre companies in Toronto and they all rejected it.

"So then I realized, if I ever want to see it onstage I've got to do it myself, and that's when the Fringe Festival came in."

Choi said the show's fiery and hilarious patriarch, Appa, is a blend of his father as well as the men in his family's church and his uncle who had a convenience store.

"It's not biographical by any means, but it's a distillation of the Korean-Canadian experience," he said.

"All my friends when I was growing up, their parents had convenience stores, so every sleepover would inevitably end up in the store somewhere."

Calgary-raised actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who's had the role of Appa since the show was in development, said he also grew up a "convenience store brat."

"When I first read the full script, I thought Ins had been spying on me my entire life," said the former cast member of TV's "Train 48." "It was eerie how similar it was in many ways. My parents had a convenience store at Sherbourne and Wellesley when I was growing up. It was called Chez Lee and we lived in the flat above it."

While the play depicts a Korean-Canadian family, it has broad appeal, noted Lee.

"Because it is directly related to a generational battle between parents wanting their children to succeed and children wanting to succeed but in their own way."

The "Kim's Convenience" tour also stars Grace Lynn Kung as Appa's daughter; Andre Sills in several roles, including the daughter's love interest; and Jean Yoon as Appa's wife.

The stop after Port Hope is Calgary (Sept. 3 to Sept. 29), followed by Hamilton, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Vancouver.

Choi, who plans to debut a personal solo show at Soulpepper's cabaret series in October, said the success of "Kim's Convenience" is "humbling and surprising."

"It feels great as well, not only just as a personal success for our team, but I feel like we're changing the face of Canadian theatre, through this show," he said. "It's a commercially successful show and all the actors onstage are actors of colour. And the story is an immigrant story and it reflects the change that has been going on in Canada for the past 50 years, the change that is happening now to every city in Canada, and the change that's going to continue to happen.

"And it not only puts it onstage and shares it, but it celebrates it and it welcomes others in the audience to celebrate this change that is happening."

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