by Carole Di Tosti
In a first time festival of award-winning work, Soulpepper Theatre Company which hails from Canada is presenting ten shows plus concerts, cabarets and more at The Pershing Square Signature Center. If Kim’s Convenience is any indication of the amazing talent and originality of the work that Soulpepper is introducing to American audiences, then their festival promises to be unique, dynamic and revelational.
Written by Ins Choi Kim’s Convenience is a hilarious, heart-warming and poignant look at the immigrant experience in Canada, an experience that is replicated in countries throughout the world. This work which has been shepherded through Toronto’s Fringe Festival and then picked up by Soulpepper Theatre Company where it enjoyed sold-out crowds and toured globally, eventually landed roundly on Canadian television as a popular CBC TV series.
How is such success imaginable in these tough producing times? In addition to the passionate enthusiasm of the cast and playwright, much credit is due to the richness of the play which touches upon every emotion that one can endeavor to experience in ninety minutes, all real, all empathetic, all profoundly human.
It is in its beautiful humanity that Choi’s work shines and captures our hearts. Through various interactions with other immigrants and citizens from their neighborhood, we experience the Kim family led by the wise, overbearing, stolid rock of a father, Abba (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee gives a stunning performance as the first-generation Korean-Canadian papa everyone endures and adores) and undergirded by the patient, loving, supportive mama Umma (Jean Yoon brings us to the depths of emotion as she quietly grieves her son’s estrangement from the family because of his harsh argument with her husband).
It is through their various encounters with their customers and friends (Ronnie Rowe Jr. proves his versatility and exceptional talent portraying four different individuals with various accents, postures and gaits) that we understand how this Korean-Canadian family opened up a convenience store, worked very hard day and night to maintain it and thus survived. With tremendous effort, faith and support from their community and church, they thrived and prospered, all the while contributing to benefit the mainstream culture and society without jettisoning their own cultural and religious values, ethics and identities. Choi reveals the importance of this type of transmigration in which families ably plant themselves in a completely different nation yet retain the very substance of their former soils so that they never renounce the finest elements of their being which have been birthed elsewhere.
It is in Abba’s and Umma’s clashes and heated encounters with their second-generation Korean-Canadian children, Janet (in a marvelous portrayal by Rosie Simon) and Jung (playwright Ins Choi’s performance is show-stopping) that we see how the stresses and strains of cultural folkways conflict to produce an emergent culture. Indeed, in both Janet and Jung the principles of the cultural past and ever-changing present healthily converge to form an evolving future and resurgence for the family.
Janet is her own woman embodying the best of her parent’s cultural past and an independent outlook as a woman guided by her own interests. As the neighborhood is being transformed by continual development, Abba hopes Janet will continue his legacy with the store, but she is her own person and Abba realizes he cannot tie his chain around her. It is a difficult acceptance and they are at a standoff until Abba supports her in her relationship with Alex (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) who is black. Abba even presides over Alex’s marriage proposal in one of the funniest scenes of the play where Abba’s coercive arm twisting physically and symbolically solidifies their engagement.
But it is in the iconic scene at the end of the play between Jung and Abba (Choi and Sun Hyung Lee are not to be believed, they are that great) that we understand the culmination of all of the themes of transformation, cultural revitalization, generational remittances between father and son and the solid foundation of love that explodes with feeling and intense emotional resonance between them. Choi builds the arc of his conflicts so seamlessly that we are gratified at the natural order of resolution in which everything has a season and even separations may end with gratifying renewals.
This production at Pershing Square Signature Center (Forty-second Street) is absolutely must-see smashing. Kudos go to the cast, director Weyni Mengesha and designers Ken MacKenzie, Thomas Ryder Payne and Lorenzo Savoini.
Kim’s Convenience. Through July 15 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.soulpepper.org
Photos: Cylla von Tiedemann