Kim’s Convenience: shop here

Lee Shorten and James Yi are in Kim's Convenience at Pacific Theatre.

Director Kaitlin Williams’s blocking helps to make the relationships in Kim’s Convenience resonant. (Photo by Jalen Saip)

Ah, the appeal of an almost-racist joke! In Kim’s Convenience, the play that spawned the TV series, writer Ins Choi finds the sweet spot as he tickles the edges of transgression.

Appa (Dad) and Umma (Mom) run a convenience store in Regent’s Park, Toronto. Appa regards the store as his legacy and he wants his 30-year-old daughter Janet to take it over when he retires, but Janet considers herself a photographer. Appa hit Janet’s bother Jung so hard when he was 16 that Jung was hospitalized for several days. He left home and hasn’t spoken to Appa since, although he still sneaks conversations with Umma at their church.

Kim’s Convenience trades in stereotypes—cleverly, for the most part, and without reducing the characters. Appa is stereotypically undemonstrative and there are lots of jokes about that—“I am serious. This is my serious face”—but Choi also allows Appa to show the depth of his feelings. Appa tells a moving story about Korean-black relations during the Rodney King riots in LA, for instance. But, after almost every revelation, Choi flips things around again. After one catharsis, Janet hugs her dad, who immediately reverts to type, stiffens and says, “Okay, that’s enough! Let go, Janet!”

In the best riff in the show, Choi flirts with offending just about every minority there is as Appa gives Janet a lesson in how to spot shoplifters: “Fat black girl is no steal. Fat white guy, that’s steal…Lesbian is steal. Two lesbians, that’s no steal. That’s cancel-out combo.” Appa’s wacky system is all about combinations; no group is consistently stigmatized: Choi gives us the thrill of audacity without actually causing damage.

And the heart of the play, which is about difficult love between parents and children, is touching.

In director Kaitlin Williams’s production, it all works.

For starters, Williams has cast extremely well. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen James Yi (Appa) onstage before but this guy’s got unbelievable chops. Yi nails every moment of the humour without ever losing touch with Appa’s deep internal life.

And get a load of Jessie Liang (Janet)! She’s still studying acting at Studio 58, but she performs with the aplomb of a pro. Maki Yi, who plays Umma, and Lee Shorten, who plays Jung, also impressed me. In the climactic scene, Shorten tore my heart out.

Tré Cotton plays a bunch of characters, including Alex, a cop Janet has a crush on. Choi has written that romance in crazily abbreviated shorthand and Cotten leans into this naïveté a bit heavily, but what the heck; I can’t imagine another actor matching Cotten’s charm.

There’s another convention in Kim’s Convenience that’s more problematic for me. To get his way, Appa regularly uses martial arts to bend other characters’ arms, putting them in pain until they submit to his will. Appa’s intentions are always benign—and comedy is about outrageousness and extremity—so it’s not the action we see in the play that I have an essential problem with. It’s the off-stage violence of the blow that put Jung in the hospital that makes me uneasy. It’s never addressed. And my awareness of that event colours how I see the subsequent joke of Appa’s physical bullying.

Still, Kim’s Convenience has so much to offer—including Carolyn Rapanos’s microscopically perfect set. It’s  so authentic that, after the show, I wanted to buy snacks from that store.

KIIM’S CONVENIENCE By Ins Choi. Directed by Kaitlin Williams. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Wednesday, September 19.  Continues until October 6. 

Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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