Review: “Kim’s Convenience” centers Korean voices, complex ideas, laughs

February 13th, 2023


It’s easy to see how Kim’s Convenience, which runs at Aurora Theatre through February 19, lent itself well to the sitcom-like format of its delightful and universally loved Netflix series of the same name. Drawn from Ins Choi’s real-life background as the son of Korean immigrants who operated a bodega in Toronto, the characters are so compelling and multifaceted that by the time the last scene rolls around, you’re longing to see where the rest of the story goes.

The original work for the stage is the raw clay that would eventually get shaped into its ideal format — the multi-episode arc. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to enjoy about this Rebecca Wear-directed production, which has been lovingly rendered with attention to detail at the Lawrenceville venue.

With its short run time (no intermission), the play gives us a pivotal moment in time for Mr. Kim (called “Appa,” meaning “father”) and his thriving business. With a Walmart on the way and a neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying, Kim is faced with the decision of whether to accept a substantial offer to sell — one that would let him retire — or whether to hang onto the community staple he spent decades establishing as an asset for his family.

For fans of the Netflix series, the Appa Kim you’ll see here is sometimes a bit harder to love. He has numerous questionable opinions; he’s stubborn and refuses to apologize. But he also has grit and determination, an immense heart and the making for a remarkably complex character in just the short hour and a half runtime.

One of Appa’s most profound flaws is how quickly he flies off the handle with his children. He has exacting standards for his daughter, Janet, an aspiring photographer, even in tasks as simple as taking out the garbage. And he’s not spoken to his son, Jung, since Appa hit 16-year-old Jung so hard that it landed the boy in the hospital. Immediately after, Jung ran away and has been estranged from his father ever since, though he still visits his mother, Umma (meaning “mother”), secretly at church.

Appa quickly flies off the handle with his children and has exacting standards for his daughter, Janet, in “Kim’s Convenience.”

This heavy stuff is interspersed with amusing, sitcom-like dialogue. When Kim encounters the casual racism of a customer who remarks, “You look like the guy from The Last Samurai,” he replies, “Tom Cruise?” Umma, played with compassion and subtlety by Yingling Zhu, has some funny lines of her own, as when her son asks if her happiest memory was of the day he was born, and she replies that, no, it was the “most painful.”

But there’s more going on here with the humor, which also serves to disarm and clear a path to greater emotional substance. Laughs abound when Appa Kim tells his artistic daughter, Janet, who is 30 and unmarried, “Now is the desperation time for you.” Later, though, he realizes he can give support and approval to his adult child in a way he never experienced from his dad.

Choi packs a lot of valuable observations, too, about generational differences — the dance between how to show gratitude for what you have while also having the right to make one’s own choices without being guilt-tripped. Do children owe their parents for the necessities the parents provided for them? The characters have different ideas on this age-old question.

It helps that the cast all share a comfortable chemistry, all inhabiting their roles with ease. At the helm, Vancouver-based James Yi inhabits Appa Kim with the dexterity and authority of a Kim’s Convenience veteran who has played the role multiple times all across Canada. (He also appears in the Netflix series.)

Jung has been estranged from his father since age 16 in “Kim’s Convenience,” but he still visits his Umma secretly at church.

Rotating through multiple characters in rapid succession, Lamar K. Cheston brings energetic versatility and some of the evening’s funniest moments. At one point, as Janet’s love interest, he imbues a kind of rubber-faced comic timing to a series of self-conscious attempts at flirting.

As the struggling and alienated Jung, Ryan Vo subtly and tenderly conveys a man just barely keeping it together so that he can provide for his young child – –  someone whose dreams are only getting further and further away.

Another standout is the scenic design by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, so exquisitely detailed that you feel like you could walk on set and run errands. There are real snacks, drinks and medications. The door even has an ad for RockStar Energy Drinks.

A quick note: A couple of bits here don’t quite hold up. In the intervening years between when this premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011 and now, the Black Lives Matter movement formed, and cellphone cameras allowed for a more widespread and visceral understanding of the horrifying police brutality and racial profiling that Black and Brown citizens in the U.S. face on a regular basis. It would be tough to imagine Choi now writing a comic scene in which a Black man gets tackled to the ground by our protagonist, as occurs in this play.

Via a fixture above the stage of “Kim’s Convenience,” we get a screen with captions in Korean.

Most refreshingly, though, is the thoughtful way that Aurora has worked to ensure that Korean voices remain at the center of this production. First, via a nifty fixture above the stage, we get a screen with captions in Korean throughout the mostly English dialogue.

The script also includes exchanges between Appa and Umma entirely in Korean with no English translation, which is pretty great. It reminded me of how Steven Spielberg’s sublime remake of West Side Story in 2021 presented its Spanish dialogue very purposefully without English captions to ensure that those scenes felt more authentic than they did in the 1960s version. The “language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help,” as Spielberg put it.

For audience members who are used to seeing everything framed in a way that is easy and digestible for them  — i.e. audiences that are White, non-immigrant, able-bodied, hetero, cis-gender, etc. —  it’s essential to experience, at least once, what it’s like not to have everything aimed solely at you. With Kim’s Convenience, you are invited to spend time with characters, spaces and dialogue that you may not have firsthand experience with. And that’s a vital part of what the arts can do.