The cast of the Pacific Theatre production of Kim's Convenience: Lee Shorten, Jessie Liang, Maki Yi, James Yi, and Tré Cotten. Photo by Emily Cooper.
The cast of the Pacific Theatre production of Kim's Convenience: Lee Shorten, Jessie Liang, Maki Yi, James Yi, and Tré Cotten. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Long before it became a hit sitcom on CBC television, Kim’s Convenience began life as a stage play. Last seen in our city in 2014, the production opening at Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre will mark the first time the play has been produced in a major urban centre since it was adapted for television.

“I heard someone say “oh, they made a play based on the TV show? Maybe I’ll go check that out,” says playwright Ins Choi with a laugh, in town to check out this latest production of his comedy.

“The comedy is there, the family’s there, the storyline is mostly the same,” he says. “Although the TV show expands the world, I hope audiences will see the soul of the TV show in the stage play.”

But even as the television adaptation continues to garner accolades, and two more season orders, there was never any question of not licensing the stage version.

“I was always interested in seeing other actors and new productions,” he says. “I love the whole [television] cast, but I was also interested in seeing another version of it, another interpretation of it.”

“My first memory of Canada had to do with the smell of chocolate, with the smell of candy. The smell you smell when you walk into a convenience store.” – playwright Ins Choi

Set in a fictional corner grocery store in Toronto, Kim’s Convenience is the story of the Korean-Canadian Kim family, headed by stubborn Mr. Kim who has built his tiny empire from nothing. As his Toronto neighbourhood begins to transform, he hopes his daughter will take over the store, but she has other plans for her future.

Inspired by a store owned by his uncle when he and his family first moved to Canada, it is one of Choi’s first memories of moving from Korea.

“My first memory of Canada had to do with the smell of chocolate, with the smell of candy. The smell you smell when you walk into a convenience store,” recalls Kim.

Playwright Ins Choi has found success with Kim's Convenience on both stage and the small screen.
Playwright Ins Choi has found success with Kim’s Convenience on both stage and the small screen.

While not based on the people or specific memories at his uncle’s store, or the three or four other convenience stores Choi worked at over the years, those experiences left an impression and became the basis for Kim’s Convenience.

“It’s not really direct, it’s more of a reference point,” says Choi.

And while the story of a family making their place in Canadian life through a convenience store may sound like a stereotype, for Choi it is much more than just immigrant story.

“I would like to repackage it as a Canadian story that’s more universal, it has been proven to relate to a larger demographic than just Koreans,” says Choi. “Canada is made up of immigrants. Any kind of immigrant story can be deemed a Canadian story.”

For director Kaitlin Williams that story has resonated with everyone involved in the Pacific Theatre production.

“As I have listened to the cast, designers and audiences speak to me, one thing that has struck me is how much this story means to them,” she says. “Ins Choi has given voice to a family and experience that has previously been invisible or pushed to the margins.”

Finding that voice has been a struggle for Choi, but it is something he is glad to see slowly changing with the success of shows like Kim’s Convenience.

“When I graduated from my acting program, I was the only non-white actor. It was so hard. It was so limiting,” he says. “When I do see these little victories, it gives me great joy.”

While certainly not seeing these victories come quickly enough, Choi does point to some of the recent gains people of colour have made in Hollywood and it gives him some hope. Among them is the new hit film Crazy Rich Asians.

“You don’t see many Asians in romcoms or sexy Asian men depicted on film,” he says. “I thought it was a fun movie. It was really joyous.”

A big part of that joy came from watching the film with his family and seeing themselves reflected back from the screen.

“I have two kids, ages 10 and 8, and it’s them seeing themselves represented,” he says. “It is a good reflection of the street, the community that you live in.”

There is little doubt it is the mirroring of what society really looks like that has made Kim’s Convenience such a hit on both television and on the stage.

Kim’s Convenience opens at Pacific Theatre on September 7 and continues through October 6. Visit pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.