You can get almost anything you need at Kim’s Convenience — including the latest success story in Canadian theatre.
Among the rows of snack foods, soft drinks, lottery scratch cards and magazines on Ken McKenzie’s perfect replica of a corner-store set is one very funny, heartfelt family sitcom that successfully sells a recognizable struggling-immigrant experience.
Kim’s Convenience, a Soulpepper Theatre of Toronto production presented by Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, also offers something you rarely see on the city’s largest non-profit stage — an entirely non-white cast.
The play, written by first-time Toronto playwright Ins Choi, may not have the dramatic heft of the last RMTC production, The Glass Menagerie, but it has just as much to say about a dysfunctional family and the way coddling and cajoling children out of love sometimes only pushes them further away. The insights into how hard it is to express love or regret are accurate in any culture.
Kim — or Appa, as he is called — is the aging Korean owner of a Toronto convenience store that he runs with his wife, Umma, and 30-year-old unmarried daughter, Janet. He’s a proud, crusty man — his only sweetness comes from his over-sugared coffee — ever-ready to take revenge against anything Japanese as a payback for his Asian neighbours taking over his homeland during the Second World War.
A schoolteacher in Korea, Kim’s "English no-good" in Canada left him no choice but to employ himself in his own store. Through long hours and determination, the business has flourished and become a neighbourhood institution.
In comes a prosperous developer acquaintance named Mr. Lee, "the black man with the Korean name," inquiring about Kim’s exit plan in light of the rumoured arrival to the area of retail behemoth Walmart. Lee, the play’s catalyst, makes him a sizable offer on the property, which Kim immediately rejects while pondering who will succeed him.
The obvious choice to continue the Kim’s Convenience dynasty is Janet. Despite her flat rejection, her father begins to school her in how to recognize shoplifters based on their race and sexual orientation. It is the comic high point of the evening as he ticks off those who steal and those who "no-steal" to his horrified daughter. Much of the laughter is generated through Archie Bunker-like racial stereotyping and an over-dependence on the wide communication gap between Kim and his customers and family.
Typical of a touring production, Kim’s Convenience is polished by not one but two directors: original helmer Weyni Mengesha; and Soulpepper’s artistic director Albert Schultz, who steered the remount.
It’s Kim’s store and it’s Kim’s play, thanks to a brilliant performance by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. With his thick accent and black slippers, Lee takes his place behind the counter beneath the South Korean and Canadian flags, trying to hold on to his old-world values and culture while grappling with independent-minded, westernized children. Like one of Kim’s martial-arts moves, Lee takes hold of his audience and bends it to his will with a rich performance.
When it comes to being combative, it’s a case of "like father, like daughter." Chantelle Han’s assertive Janet is equally convincing as daddy’s little girl and father’s main foil. Kim demeans Janet’s low-paying profession as a photographer and rates her prospects of becoming a wife as "expiration date over." The argument turns particularly nasty as the two tally who owes whom for her decades of unpaid work in the store and his bankrolling her for every music lesson and computer. Neither can recognize the other’s legitimate position and say thank you.
In the church next door, the religious Umma, played with a quiet dignity by Jane Luk, meets secretly with her estranged son, who had a physical altercation with his Appa as a teenager and ran off with the contents of the store’s safe. Jung, performed with a beaten but contrite air by the playwright, works for a car-rental agency and is married with a baby boy. He confesses his self-loathing at not becoming as successful as his childhood friends.
The versatile Andrew Sills rounds out the cast in four distinct roles, including an incomprehensible West Indian customer and Alex, a police officer who is wooing Janet.
The resolution is predictable and real and sentimental. On an evening when a hint of spring was finally in the air, an uplifting 90-minute play seems like a perfect night out, especially when the audience leaves the theatre laughing as they recall funny lines.