From its beginnings at the Toronto Fridge Festival in 2011, to the CBC hit series that bears its name, Kim’s Convenience has been an undeniable success. Relatable, funny, touching, with rich and interesting characters, it is also at times surprising.
For those who do not yet know its story, the setting is as the title suggests, a corner grocery store in downtown Toronto. Appa, the patriarch, has a strained relationship with his oldest son Jung. Janet, the youngest daughter, is a struggling photographer and mother Umma tries to be the glue that keeps the family together.
The family dynamic and the cause for much of the play’s conflict comes from inter-generational clashes, and a desire for parents to instill traditional values brought from foreign countries to their Canadian-born children. Working on two levels, it is not only relatable for any family but is particularly resonant for those, like me, who are first-generation immigrants.
The play begins with Appa, played by James Yi, opening his store. He quickly changes the radio station from contemporary pop to adult easy-listening. That simple gesture helps to set a tone where generations struggle to preserve the past and resist the future.
Yi is no stranger to Appa, who performed the role in the original 2018 run at Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre. Yi has a second connection to Kim’s Convenience, playing Jimmy Young on the popular CBC sitcom.
Yi’s Appa is a complex character that can change from loveable and funny to dark and moody quickly. Having worked hard all his life, he is looking forward to his twilight years. But having sacrificed everything for his shop, he has little to show for it.
A Korean-Canadian immigrant family, The Kims, are concerned with the rapid gentrification of their neighbourhood and the store’s future. Mr. Kim must decide if he sells his legacy and retires or passes the torch to his youngest daughter. The problem is Janet doesn’t want any part of it.
Also reprising her role in the 2018 Pacific Theatre production, Jessie Liang helps to create the dynamic between father and daughter. You can feel their familiarity and affection for one another. Janet, although rebellious and ungrateful at times, craves Appa’s love and approval. And while Appa is strict and aloof, he wants nothing more than for his daughter to be happy.
Maki Yi portrays Umma as a woman struggling with a balance to mend the broken relationship between her husband and their son and her responsibilities as a wife. Seeing her family torn apart pains her, and Yi showcases a palpable sadness. With the relationship between Umma and Appa strained, Umma dutifully brings food to her husband as they make conversation in their native Korean. Still, there is little affection shared between them. In one scene, Umma comes home in tears after a brief meeting with Jung but quickly changes her demeanour when Appa sees her.
Jung, portrayed by Howie Lai, is a tortured young man dealing with the consequences of a reckless past. Having experienced a life-changing event recently, he longs for the glory days and to mend fences with his family.
While the plot is surprisingly heavy at times, there is a great deal of humour, and even a few laugh out loud moments. Much of the comic relief is brought by Andrew Creightney, who skilfully juggles the roles of Rich, Mr. Lee, Mike, and Janet’s love interest Alex.
Carolyn Rapanos’ set design spares no details bringing the small corner store to life, with everything from the lottery tickets on the counter, to the snacks and toiletries.
As a first-generation Canadian, I remember the conflicts with my father growing up, from wanting to wear make-up or even dress a certain way. I knew Kim’s Convenience was going to strike a chord, and it did. While a rollercoaster of emotions, ultimately the ride leads to home.
Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi. Directed by Katilin Williams. A Surrey Arts Centre presentation of an Arts Club Theatre Company production based on the 2018 Pacific Theatre production. On stage at the Surrey Arts Centre (13750 88th Ave, Surrey) until March 1. Visit surrey.ca for tickets and information.
Part of the Arts Club on tour Kim’s Convenience will perform in other locations in the Lower Mainland and beyond. For the complete list of upcoming shows, visit artsclub.com.