If you love comedy and Canadian immigrant stories, you’ve probably been watching Kim’s Convenience. This great CBC series is based on the award-winning play of the same name by Ins Choi. The play’s script was published by House of Anansi Press; reading it doesn’t do justice to the play, though, as it really comes alive through the interpretation of actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who dramatizes the lead character of Mr. Kim (aka Appa) in the play and now in the TV series.
In March 2014, when the play was being performed at Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Ins Choi spoke about his experience to a small audience at the University of Winnipeg.
Choi noted that there are few opportunities for Canadian actors of colour, even in multicultural Toronto – other than the stereotypical roles of “Asian gangster #4 and Chinese waiter #3.” He left film and TV out of frustration with these limitations. In response to these limits, a group of theatre people of Asian background banded together to form Fu-GEN (future generations); they encouraged new writing and hosted monthly meetings. Kim’s Convenience emerged in this context.
Kim’s Convenience, Choi declared, is not about his own life but about Korean Canadian life in Toronto. The convenience store and the church were two places of social identification for this community. Many culturally specific plays, he observed, are “really heavy” but he wanted to lighten it up. It took him 6-7 years to write the script. He workshopped the play with professional actors., which is where he met lead actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee.
In 2010, the play was sent to theatre companies in Toronto, but there was no interest. Choi “just wanted it to be onstage, at least once.” He applied to the Toronto Fringe Festival’s new play contest, which he won. Choi took on directing, producing, and acting himself, making the cover of NOW magazine. By opening night of the Fringe, there was big buzz about Kim’s Convenience – it was a runaway hit, with sold out audiences. Theatres that had previously rejected him now started to court him. He chose Soulpepper (which usually performs classics by Chekhov and Pinter) as it was “a political move to include an ethnocentric contemporary play in that canon.” Some 8-9 shows a week for 4 weeks were subsequently sold out at Soulpepper. The play was remounted that same year in a larger Toronto theatre, and sold out again. Choi then decided to tour Canada with the play and develop it into a TV sitcom.
Why make the play a comedy?
Choi’s father grew up in North Korea. The family mythology is that his father, as the 13-year-old middle child of a family of 12, travelled south during the war. But Choi’s father tells the story with humour: they played tricks on people, they hunted for chickens and pigs, all while planes and bombers flew overhead. The way his father tells these stories is “so adventurous and fun and hilarious…. There is much humour and joy, in every culture. It’s really important to bring that out…. I always wanted to bring out my family’s flavour.”
How would an audience in Korea receive Kim’s Convenience? How did the play change your and your family’s life?
Choi doesn’t know if the humour would translate. His parents saw the play at the Toronto Fringe and were proud and thanked him. He felt like they thought he was honouring them. His parents didn’t oppose his career choice but were worried: “You won’t have money. Who will marry you? Do you want kids? Do you want a car?” They are nonetheless pleased for his success.
If the play is adapted to television or film, what will have to change?
Stage to film is a more linear adaptation; TV is different. On TV, it may not be the same story. The storyline of the play could be the TV pilot and the sitcom would continue from there, with the son at the store, and Janet and Alex dating. Or the framework of the play could be the entire first season, with the son returning home at the end of the first season. It would still be set in downtown Toronto, and would be filmed there. “The format is so different: you have to write to the commercials…. It’s a different art form, and a learning experience.” There will be no laugh track, and the humour will be subtle.
Do you think your success will lead to more people of colour acting, producing, and writing?
Ravi and Asha Jain’s play, A Brimful of Asha, features the authors – a man and his mother – as the mother tries to arrange a marriage for him on a trip to India. “It’s a new kind of theatre.” The play has toured across Canada and internationally. It’s “not a big wave, but there are other such plays that are gaining access.”
What is it about the play that reaches people?
At the Fringe, when Choi was onstage at the end and the lights went down, the audience was momentarily silent and he thought they hated it. Then the lights went up and there was applause. It was a surprise to him that the audience got the humour. But it is an immigrant story to which all Canadians can connect. “Essentially it’s a story about a family, parents and children, their family values, trying to navigate home, family, love… so everyone can find their place in the play somewhere.”