Thursday 1 May 2014

Kim's Convenience teases, tickles & touches

There are a couple of life truths. We die twice. Once when we ourselves die, and again when the last person who remembers us dies. When we immigrate, we are born again twice. Once in the new culture that we must adjust to ourselves. And again within our families as old world values clash with those of our children's brave new world.

Two decades along, Kim's Convenience does with endless humour tracks what Spike Lee did with biting sarcasm in his 1991 genius movie Do The Right Thing. Lee's film featured (among others) a feisty Korean convenience store shopkeeper in the largely black ghetto of Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy they call it there) in New York City.

In playwright Ins Choi's break-out script KC, by contrast, the setting is Regent Park in Toronto. Nevermind Spike Lee's New York. There's a checklist of similarities between the Regent Park experience of to-day and the Gastown/Strathcona neighbourhoods in DTES Vancouver. Gentrification is not just creeping in, it's on roller skates. Real estate roller skates. The "renoviction" roller derby willy-nilly elbows ethnics and welfare folk out of their SRO (single room occupancy) units by the dozens each month. A similar horde of maniacs is racing through Old Toronto's late-40's social housing projects a few blocks up from Corktown at Dundas.

Plot-&-theme stuff : The Kim family patriarch Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) wants 30-year-old daughter Janet (Chantelle Han) to take over the family biz. She's a professional "picture taker", he calls her, who lives up top the store. Grabbing freebie food on her way out the door is as far as she wants to involve herself in the 25-year old family business. Half-a-life earlier elder brother Jung (Ins Choi) vanishes after stealing cash from the store safe following a violent family falling out. A quick slide down the slope into drugs soon brought jail, now he's out and a bitter, lonely rental car agent in Parkdale whose friends own Beemers while he rides TTC trolleys.

Appa and matriarch Umma (Jane Luk) are being pressured to accept a big-ticket check from a developer for their property. Their Korean-Christian church has already been sold off for $3.9M. But they want to keep KC all in the family, their fractured and fractious family. The clash between generations, the calls to "duty" -vs- the psychic scream for "self-actualization" -- reminiscent of ACT's earlier A Brimful of Asha -- are the set-up here. Selling out would give Appa his "pension plan", but that's it. Just money.

Appa was a history teacher back in Korea. He has encyclopedic knowledge of his country whose significant events and datelines he throws at his kids every spare moment. He also displays a full monty of DNA-hatred for the Japanese stemming from Japan's 1904 invasion and subsequent occupation of Korea and the subjugation of its people until fin de guerre 1945. Such a knee-jerk hatred that if your Honda happens to park by the Convenience store loading zone, TO Police get a 9-1-1 summons off Appa's mobile. 

(Aside: This is Canada. It's okay for ethnic racial stereotypes to stereotype other ethnics. Which is why Little Mosque on the Prairie played so successfully. And okay, too, to laugh at all this paradox. Oh. The Honda? Owned by the developer who's trying to buy KC's shop out, one Mr. Lee whom Appa describes tongue-in-cheek as "that black guy with the Korean last name". One more delight : Appa rails over-&-over at lotto customer Rich that his new beverage on the counter is not bloody ginseng -- that's the disgraceful Japanese word for it -- no, it's Korean insam instead -- so hear me, get it right and call it that, Appa blusters.)

Like dairy farming, convenience store shopkeeping is as much lifestyle as it is a job. In a recent interview, Choi related how setting up a corner store was a relatively easy thing for offshore immigrants with faint English skills to do. (Says Umma of Appa : "His-a English is-a very no good!") Not huge profit margins in shops, but enough to live on when it's the family who're pushing the store's stash of snack foods, smokes, newspapers and lotto tix across the counter. But symbiosis can also occur : Appa says he won't sell because his customers need him. Or is it because he needs his customers -- the kids who graduate from bubble-gum and slurpies to cigarettes and Red Bull, and then their kids in their footsteps.

He tells Janet in a truly poignant scene 2/3 the way through : "What is my story? Hmmnnn... What is story of me, Mr. Kim? My whole life is this store. Everybody know this store, they know me. This store is my story. And if I just sell store, then my story is over. Who is Mr. Kim? Nobody know that. You take over my store, my story keep going." [On a personal note I've always thought the words I've written over 40 years have been my "story". Ins Choi's script forces me to reflect quietly and sincerely and skeptically on that belief. Now that kind of impact is successful play-writing.]

But the script is much more universal than just a Korean-immigrant story launched during the 1980's rush of ethnic groups to Canada. Fact is all parent-child relationships go through growing pains, have stresses and fractures, harsh words that don't reflect the genuine love that underscores the conflicts.

Production values :  Kudos as noted, again, to Ins Choi for a very clever stage text. Hard to believe it's his virgin script. As Appa, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee riffs off a very believable aging arthritic papa whose gruff and abrupt staccato belches of dialogue mask The Dad lurking underneath. His refrain of "OK! OK! Out! Out!" made me laugh each time. And his use of the ejaculative "a" (pron. "uh") at the end of most words -- as when he accused Honda-dealer Mr. Shim of "pimping the Jesus-a" -- made his Korenglish patois believable. Playwright Choi doing the role of prodigal son Jung had some very rich moments of pain, anomie and angst. He is a skilled character actor. As sister Janet, Chantelle Han's bitchy shortness with Appa will prove v-e-r-y convincing dialogue to contemporary parents accustomed to being dissed by their kids. Jane Luk as Umma turned in a nuanced night as Appa's dutiful "slave", the kids' mom and god-fearing Christian believer. For his part, Andre Sills cracks off four roles, each one believably, though my favourite was Mike-the-stealer. 

This is an on-tour remount by Toronto's Soulpepper group (theatre training academy and professional stage, both). Resident designer Ken MacKenzie replicates a convenience store wonderfully well, though I wonder whether Toronto's Korean shops were as meticulously neat and orderly -- almost o.c.-so -- as MacKenzie would have us believe. Still, I felt I was back in the Soo or Howe corner markets in White Rock from when I moved there in 1968 : I could smell the creased & weathered linoleum and got whiffs of the tins of Black Cat baccy. 

Lighting designer Lorenzo Savoini's fluorescents were spot-on. Sound director Thomas Ryder Payne's opening streetscape backdrop was choice -- I just wish it had crept in each time the shop door opened and its electro-dinger chimed. 

And I would be remiss not to mention fight director Sean Baek for his convincing bits of gongkwon punishment Appa metes out for stealers and suitors both. Writer Choi and Director Weyni Mengesha had great fun playing with those pieces of stage business.

Slight problem :  Primary problem for this viewer was Director Mengesha's blocking, particularly for Han as Janet. In my household when we're snarking at one another, no one stands stock still -- we twitch and roll our eyes and pirouette-in-place. When Janet and Appa are in full-flight-screech-&-grunt at one another -- as they are quite often -- they're nearly rooted to their spots on stage. Curious! And the charming flirt-scene between Sills as Alex-the-TO-cop and former-teen-age heart-throb Janet was positively statuesque, in the worst sense. It was Choi's brilliant "What kind of food you like?" verbal flippery between Alex and Janet that saved that scene. And Alex. Note-to-file. Smooch! Janet big-time triumphantly! while she gongkwon's her groaning and submissive dad Appa, don't peck her like a brother, mon. But these are mere quibbles.

Who gonna like : As many before me have noted, this is an instant-classic-Canadiana-immigrant-coming-of-age script that is worth the entry ducats to hear, nevermind see. Ins Choi captures remarkably the taste-feel-smell-sound-look of every non-caucasian corner mom-&-pop store you've ever wandered into (called a "convenience" or a "variety" back east, more commonly a "market" or a "grocery" here in B.C.) Too-static pace at times to accompany too-static blocking at times do not detract fatally from a charming and idiosyncratic snapshot of an immigrant's corner shop from the inside out.

Comic drama modeled after t.v. sitcoms, there are one-liners aplenty to make us guffaw, but some sentimental tear-jerk moments as well such as the inevitable reconciliation scene of the prodigal son Jung with Pops Appa at the end. (Again! some wonderfully clever Choi dialogue driving that exchange.) More than one critic has said those years-long grievances between the two were dispensed with too quickly and conveniently. Well, to them I say just look at all the drama Billy Bard crammed into the Montague and Capulet households in just a few minutes more...

Kim's Convenience touched me. An immigrant myself, though without the language roadblock, I relate to wholesale relocation, resettlement and reinvention of self. This is moving clever stuff drama fans in BC's multi-clectic social arena just shouldn't miss.

Until May 24th at Granville Island Stage. 


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