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Family matters

Playwright INS CHOI mined his Korean immigrant background to create surprising hit

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A cluster of young, cocky Asian men were standing around in Toronto, boasting about all the cool stage projects they had lined up.

When the testosterone-driven game of verbal one-upmanship came around to a 20-something Korean-born actor named Ins Choi, he hesitated.

"I didn't have anything, so I kind of lied," he recalls, then quickly corrects himself. "I didn't kind of lie, I lied."

Choi quickly improvised a tall tale about writing a play about a Korean convenience store that he would set in a real convenience store to enhance authenticity. His pals were suitably impressed and Choi strutted away, feeling flush with his colleagues' admiration.

"The site-specific stuff was the clincher," Choi says with a laugh. "It was like, 'That's how far ahead I'm thinking.' Of course, it wasn't true. It was so dumb."

It turns out, not so much.

Choi's debut play, Kim's Convenience, is the must-have title for Canadian theatre this season. A national tour launched at Theatre Calgary in September and has continued to regional theatres in Hamilton and Ottawa before stopping at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre beginning March 13. Then it's on to Vancouver in April and is already booked for the Citadel in Edmonton next fall. A feature film is in the works, as is a TV sitcom.

Although the 40-year-old Torontonian still ranks as an emerging playwright, he is savvy enough to realize that he might never have a more successful work. Choi, a retired pastor's son, will be content if he is forever known for his warm-hearted comedy.

"Hey, I'll be all right if I'm known, period," the married father of six-year-old daughter Poem and three-year-old son River says during a telephone. "I'd be OK with that. Come on."

Choi's evolution as a playwright should be an inspiration to any aspiring artist encountering a seemingly insurmountable wall of rejection. His respected acting teacher at York University predicted that Canada was not yet ready for an Asian leading man, anticipating that his pupil wouldn't work much. His mother -- who wanted her only son to be a pastor, like his father and grandfather -- warned him that it wasn't a matter of his talent but his "mask," or face, that would forever stunt his performing career.

Still he persevered. He joined the playwriting unit of the fu-Gen, the Toronto-based Asian-Canadian theatre company, and buoyed by unanimous positive reception for his fabricated project, he began in 2005 to write Kim's Convenience, based on the experiences of his uncle and the many parents of Korean friends who operated family-owned corner stores all over Toronto.

"It's not a biography," says Choi, who worked in several stores. "It's a collection of what happened to all the men at church who worked in convenience stores. I grew up listening to them. I remember helping my uncle count money and rummaging through the porn magazines that weren't selling."

No one initially would touch his script, so he went Canadian theatre DIY route -- a.k.a. the fringe festival. Choi entered the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival's new play contest and won a waiver on the $800 entry fee, foreshadowing what was to come.

"I just wanted to see it onstage one time and then that dream could die," says Choi, who was born in Seoul but moved with his family to Scarborough, Ont., when he was a year old.

Kim's Convenience centres around a proud store owner named Mr. Kim who wants to retire and dreams of passing the business on to one of his offspring, but they all have other career plans. When a wealthy developer makes a pitch to buy the operation, the family has a tough choice on its hands. Choi plays wayward son Jung in a cast that also includes Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Mr. Kim, Jane Luk as his wife Umma, Chantelle Han as his daughter Janet and Andre Sills in various roles.

Kim's Convenience was a surprise fringe sellout and immediately Choi's telephone began to ring from those artistic directors who had rejected his script. He chose Soulpepper Theatre Company to host his mainstage debut in January 2012, and it was such a hot ticket that an encore run followed that May. The production was nominated for two Toronto stage awards and was named best Canadian play by the Toronto Theatre Critics' Association.

"My parents loved it and gave me a big hug after the opening," says Choi, who will perform his solo show, The Subway Stations of the Cross, March 23 at Saint Margaret's Anglican Church on Ethelbert Street. "My dad said, 'Thank you,' and I felt like he was saying that it was all worth their sacrifice."

Most Canadian playwrights dream of taking their work to the United States, and especially Broadway. Choi is talking to American regional companies but is most anxious to take Kim's Convenience home to Seoul. He had been in unsuccessful negotiations to tour it there in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of Canada-Korea diplomatic relations.

"To do that would be up there with opening night at the fringe festival," he says. "To return to the country of my mother and father would be huge."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 13, 2014 C1

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