KIM’S CONVENIENCE written and directed by Ins Choi, with Choi, Ester Jun, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Andre Sills and Jean Yoon. Presented by Ins Choi Productions at the Bathurst Street Theatre (736 Bathurst). July 8 at 10:30 pm, July 10 at 1:15 pm, July 11 at 8:15 pm, July 12 at 1 pm, July 15 at 5:15 pm, July 17 at 7 pm. See listing.
Like the Greek diner, the Chinese laundry and the Italian fruit stand before it, the Korean convenience store is a marker of a certain time and place in North American immigrant culture.
Now it's become the setting for an award-winning play.
"These stores are slowly disappearing," says Ins Choi, author of Kim's Convenience, winner of this year's Fringe New Play Contest. Sitting in the basement of a downtown Korean church - another institution that's disappearing, or at least moving north - the lanky playwright and actor pats down his big mop of hair.
"From the early 80s on, Korean immigrants took to convenience stores," he says. "But now the first generation is retiring and the second generation is successful and doesn't want to take over from their parents. In 20 years, there may not be any around. So I wanted to chronicle it, give a public voice to that experience."
The play is set in a Regent Park store overseen by the proud Mr. Kim, who gets an offer to sell the building (they live above the store) but wants to pass it on to his children. His 30-year-old daughter, who helps out, isn't interested, and he's estranged from his rebellious son.
Choi knows the ins and outs of variety store life. He worked in several while growing up in Scarborough.
"I used to work at a Jug City in Rexdale, which a friend's dad owned, and I also worked at a Minute Mart at Sheppard and Yonge," he says in a careful and quiet voice, which he occasionally breaks out of to do a wicked impression. No surprise he's also an accomplished actor with a gift for comic roles. He's just finished up two years with Soulpepper's Academy, and won Dora Award nominations for the indie shows Banana Boys and Lady In The Red Dress.
"I definitely knew the environment. It's kind of based on my experiences, but it's also just me imagining, ‘What if?'"
We're speaking in Korean Bethel Church, which Choi's father founded and where he used to be pastor before retiring. Down here in the basement, Choi remembers playing stick hockey and seeing old women churn out batches of kimchee and prepare meals for hundreds. Right now, a few elderly men tasked with renovating the church are ripping into their lunches.
"The story of Korean immigration in Toronto melds the church and the store," says Choi. "For me, they're like the mother and father of the Korean community. I can't really speak of other communities like those in L.A. or New York or even in Brazil, where there's a big Korean contingent, but in Toronto, after the Korean War, it was the churches that helped immigrants find their way. They set them up with the Korean Businessmen's Association, which let recent immigrants who didn't know the language run their own stores. All they had to do was buy the goods, put price stickers on them and then sell to customers."
Suddenly he breaks into a little dramatic illustration.
"‘Hi, how are you doing?'" he asks, pretending I'm a customer. He mimics punching numbers, giving me change. "‘Bye, have a nice day.' That's all the English you needed, and you could survive."
Part of the script's richness comes from the character of Mr. Kim, who's stubborn, racist and overly opinionated but has lots of street smarts. He can predict a customer's stealing potential from his or her colour, size and sexual orientation.
"I know that voice," says Choi, smiling. "A lot of it is based on these guys," he says pointing to the construction workers. "There's a term for a middle-aged man - ajusshi. The Church is full of ajusshis, these men who are very proud. They always have to have their say. Their favourite phrase is ‘Let me tell you...' or ‘You're not doing it right.' You can recognize them by their dress pant legs rolled up, socks on, in flip-flops, with a cellphone clip on their belts.
"They're an archetype in the Korean community. I remember hearing them speak at church and realizing how funny they were. But you couldn't laugh. And they wouldn't even know they were being funny."
Choi has his own father to thank for his interest in theatre.
"He's a great storyteller, and in his sermons I'd see him move people, often with stories of his time growing up in North Korea and moving to South Korea."
He recalls one pivotal childhood memory when his father was reunited with his diasporic siblings whom he hadn't seen in years.
"I remember watching them tell stories, and being in awe. I can't speak Korean very well, but I can understand it. They'd cry and then laugh. And that for me was theatre, what the Africans call griot: setting the fire. It's village storytelling, the place where theatre really comes from."
Later on, in Korean church camp, Choi realized that doing skits about "redeemed gangsters, pimps and whores" could make girls laugh, which helped him socially because he was shy.
After a rough start at one high school, where he got into a tough crowd and spent most of his time perfecting his skateboarding skills, he moved to another and reinvented himself through music and theatre. That led to studying theatre at York.
It hasn't all been easy, though. He had only a handful of Asian-Canadian acting role models, after all.
"I did see Sandra Oh onstage," he recalls. "I remember her playing a cop in Inquest at the Factory Theatre. I went because she was [one of the only Asian actors I knew]. I saw Jean Yoon, who's in Kim's Convenience. But that was it. And there were hardly any Asian male actors. Denis Akiyama... who else?"
Now, though, especially with the Asian-Canadian theatre troupe fu-GEN, where he first tried out scenes from Kim's Convenience, things are beginning to change. He's part of a generation of theatre artists that includes Nina Lee Aquino, Richard Lee, Marjorie Chan and David Yee. He even traces an "Asian bloodline" at York, with Lee, Grace Kung and Rose Cortez following him in the theatre program.
He's still acting, but with one produced script behind him, he's eager to finish more. He's currently focusing on one called Northern Korea, about the unification of the Koreas.
"It's an absurdist play, because it's an absurd country where weird things happen," says Choi, whose father currently assists North Korean refugees. Choi once visited North Korea with his dad, the two of them posing as businessmen. He's also met a few North Koreans living in Toronto without status.
"They're young, they have dreams, they want to get married, find love, have kids and figure out who they are," he says, clearly caught up in the possibilities of the play.
And like his dad, the former pastor, he would like an audience for his work. He wants Kim's Convenience to appeal not just to regular theatre-goers but to the Korean-Canadian community.
"Second-generation Korean-Canadians see things like Mamma Mia! or Les Misérables," he says. "I want them to come. But I also want the first generation, my parents' generation, to see it. Rather than rent a video, I want them to embrace this show."