1/22/2023 KIM’S CONVENIENCE Aurora Theatre
What is your story? How are you defined? What will be your legacy?
These may seem like deep and heady questions to arise out of a pleasantly diverting piece like Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience. But beneath the sit-com situations, the mis-communicating accents, the character-driven smiles, there does lie a solid spine, a clear-eyed look at family and legacy.
Originally produced in Canada, Kim’s Convenience is set in a Toronto convenience store, owned and operated by the Kim family. Father and Mother are immigrants, still uncomfortable with English, trying to assimilate into a diverse neighborhood while preserving that core Korean cultural identity that seems to define them. Son and daughter are fully Canadian, fully assimilated, and starting to create their own paths in life. Seemingly at odds with the diversity of the neighborhood, ALL the visitors to the store are played by one actor, sporting a tower-of-babel collection of accents and outfits.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is the source of a popular CBC television series, currently bingeable on Netflix, and, after seeing this show, you just might want to binge. (I’m still midway through season one.) Actor James Yi (who plays Appa) here has a small recurring role on a few later season episodes.
One question that did nag at me after seeing this is “Where is the dividing line between an affectionate wallow in cultural idiosyncrasy and a brainless decent into cultural stereotype?” The play has its roots in a Korean ethos and was written by a Korean Canadian, so I’m inclined to accept the affectionate interpretation, but I can’t help but wonder what subtleties were missed by non-Korean director Rebecca Wear. There were some moments that seemed to me to be stereotype-ish, particularly one in which Appa gives us a litany of blatantly racist “markers”
for identifying someone there to shoplift. But, because the production is drenched in a Korean ethos – Korean supertitles are included for non-English-speaking audience members – it could be that this reaction is a result of my own cultural blinders. After all, Appa’s “markers” seem to be … well … spot on!
All this being said, I really REALLY liked this show, and was happy to return to the Aurora’s old space (Goldilocks and the Three Bears is filling the new space with tours and families and kids, oh my).
Kim’s Convenience is a triumph of acting and writing – the four members of the Kim family are dimensional, relatable, and often aggravating – Appa (Father) has an anger management problem and has been known to be physically abusive to his son. OTOH, he is also able to easily subdue that potential shoplifter and has a heart open to his family and to his “regular customers.” Umma (Mother) is an unending font of maternal (and spousal) devotion, but is also prone to passive-aggressiveness. Daughter Janet is a fiery free spirit, chafing at the reins father can’t seem to let go of – in her thirties she is also prone to parental judgment at her unmarried state. Son Jung is unhappily married and alienated from his father – the efforts to “bring him home” provide much of the drive of the plot. As does the effort of a local entrepreneur to buy the store for far more than it is probably worth.
As played by James Yi (Appa), Yingling Zhu (Umma), Caroline Donica (Janet) and Ryan Vo (Jung), they come across as a full family, rife with grudges and memories and little games, glued together with a ton of affection and history. This is some most excellent ensemble work! As the “outsiders,” Lamar K. Cheston bounces from character to character, costume to costume, accent to accent with blinding speed and breathtaking skill. He eventually settles into Alex, a local policeman who also happens to be a childhood friend of the Kim offspring.
I was especially impressed with how language and dialect are used in this production. One of the best scenes is a “dueling accents” encounter between Appa and a Jamaican shopper who can’t seem to make themselves understood despite their best efforts. And one of the funniest lines is when Jung meets his father for the first time in years and says “Your English has gotten better” – Appa’s accent can be a bit impenetrable at times. Effective too are a few short scenes between Appa and Umma in which they speak untranslated Korean to each other (as they would) and are still semi-understood by those of us outside the diaspora. We get the gist. Apparently, family and affection are the true universal languages.
Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have designed and built an impressive and intricately detailed set, mostly the store but including a single-scene insert of a church that slides smoothly (and quickly) into place. The shelves are jam-packed with convenience store items and boxes and merchandise (will there be a “strike sale” of all this stuff when the show closes?). Lighting by Rochelle Denise Riley provides excellent support, despite there being nothing outside the “front door” to indicate time of day or night.
We eventually learn that Appa bought and opened the store when his Korean teaching credentials (and broken English) were useless in Toronto. He basically redefined his life. The store IS his story and he wants it to remain his family legacy. Janet has more artistic ambitions to become a photographer, and Jung is still trying to find ANY path that leads away from the store. Will Appa sell the store that his children don’t want? Is he too old to start another life story? Kim’s Convenience may be pleasantly slight, but this cast and production make us care about the answers to those questions.
And that makes this a story that truly matters.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #AuroraTheatre #KimsConvenience #킴스 컨비니언스)