Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi
Soulpepper on 42nd Street at Pershing Square Signature Center
BSonArts Rating: B+
Show-Score Rating: 85
If you are resisting seeing “Kim’s Convenience” at Signature’s most intimate theater because you heard it has been made into a sitcom of Canada’s public broadcasting system, fear not. The original play is a beautifully written (and frequently insightful) family dramedy. And even though the acclaimed Soulpepper Theater Company has revived this play many times since it’s 2012 premiere, the production remains fresh and warmly funny with its original cast intact.
Appa (father) Kim and his wife Umma (mother) moved to Canada from South Korea in the 1980s and opened a small convenience store in Toronto. They had two children, Janet, a single struggling photographer, and Jung, their estranged son who left the family years ago after a violent disagreement with his father. Kim is resisting retiring because he sees his store as his life-long legacy, but Janet has no desire to follow in her father’s footsteps and take over the business. The neighborhood is experiencing a gentrification that bodes well for the convenience store’s future; in fact, Kim has a generous offer to buy his store from Mr. Lee, described by Kim as “my favorite black man with a Korean name.”
Against this family drama, we begin to appreciate why Canada is viewed as a model of positive immigration practices without a history of extreme racial and ethnic prejudice and oppression. No, it’s not the promised land, and Mr. Choi explores these issues from a Canadian point-of-view with humor and ingenuity. Much of this exploration is in the hands of Appa, played by Paul Sun-Yung Lee. Whenever he starts a story about race, we are sure it will not end pleasingly; but his tale usually ends in an unexpected manner. Mr. Choi balances his upbeat view of the relations between Blacks and Asians with a few reminders of the reality of life running a bodega.
But “Kim’s Convenience” is a family drama at its core. It’s interested in what an aging generation should or could expect from their children. Are the accomplishments of the parents part of their child’s identity? And how do ethnicity and identity interact? This is not a weighty play. There is lots of humor in its 90 minutes. The play’s main weakness is the underdeveloped characters of the mother and the son. As played by Jean Yoon, with very few lines outside of one scene, Umma appears to be a very traditional Asian female stereotype: quiet and seemingly subservient. The plot keeps the son, played by playwright Choi, out of most of the play, although there are ways to give us a much fuller picture of his views, especially considering the very dramatic circumstances that separated him from his family many years ago.
Nevertheless, the play running through July 15, is worth seeing. In a brief curtain speech on opening night, Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz acknowledged the enthusiastic, flag-waving Canadians in the audience. “I see there are some Canadians in the house,” after a brief pause, he continued, “and some who want to go there soon.” His company’s production gives us a small but delightful view of what awaits us.