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August 6, 2016

Kim’s Convenience


Leslie / Road Stories

Kim’s Convenience, the celebrated play by playwright-performer Ins Choi, has gone from the stage to the television screen on CBC-TV.

Leslie wrote this review for Roadstories.ca back in June, 2012, when Kim’s Convenience was playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts …

Toronto has a varied, vibrant live theatre scene. One of my favourites theatres is the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District. I recently went to see the play, “Kim’s Convenience”, which was enjoying a second run there.

The Young Centre doesn’t just stage plays, they run pre-show events and after-shows in their various spaces in two of the renovated Victorian brick buildings that are a feature of the Distillery District. Before I first saw the show, I attended a pre-show featuring the play’s author, Ins Choi. He is a young Korean playwright, and he talked about the fact that the majority of corner convenience stores in Toronto are run by Korean people. If you live in the city, it likely only takes you a minute to realize how true that is.

Choi explained that he wasn’t far into writing his play before he realized that what he was doing was writing about his father, about his father’s generation, who were the first generation of Koreans to come to Canada, in the 1970s, and to open convenience stores, the stores that are now a feature in many Toronto neighbourhoods. He said that this idea continued to develop as he wrote, and that the main character in the play is a picture of, and a tribute to, his father’s generation.

Following the pre-show talk, we went into the theatre. I was startled by my first look at the stage, startled in a delighted and very admiring way. The stage was a replica of all the local convenience stores I have been in. Right there on the stage were the cigarette shelves behind the counter and the lottery tickets, underneath the glass on the counter near the cash register. Over to the side were the shelves with chips and candy lined up near the front of the aisle. It was an enormously clever setting for the play.

The other thing that very forcefully struck me as I watched the play was the reaction of the audience. As a group they were collectively totally involved in a warm-hearted enthusiasm for the setting and the story. It was a more intense audience reaction, and a warmer one than I usually sense when I watch a play. I think it was because this Toronto audience really empathized with and recognized this setting, this convenience store with which we are all so familiar. It was our place and our play.

The other Toronto feature was that as the plot developed, we learned that the store was set in Regent Park, in a world where life was changing for Mr. Kim, the outspoken, dynamic family patriarch and convenience store owner, played by Paul Sun Hyung Lee. It’s a moving drama of family and neighbourhood. The writer, Ins Choi, has a small, but vital role, and a young actor, Cle Bennett, who told me he has usually done television before this play, does an amazing job of changing roles and wardrobe to play very different young black men interacting with Mr. Kim.

After the play I asked a couple of other audience members whether they had felt the same warmth and identification with the Toronto scene that I had noticed. They both shared my feeling that this play had captured something that was very connected to the place of the Korean convenience store in the daily world of our Toronto neighbourhoods.

Although, as Ins Choi explained, Toronto is not the only North American city where Korean immigrants have set up convenience stores. Apparently, when they had the riots in Los Angeles, there were a number of neighbourhoods where local black women held hands and formed a protective circle around their favourite neighbourhood Korean convenience stores so that the rioters would leave them alone.

The new CBC TV comedy series premieres Fall, 2016, Tuesdays at 9 p.m.