I saw Kim’s Convenience (by Ins Choi) at the Manitoba Theatre Centre mainstage last night. That old adage “I laughed, I cried” literally applied. This play got me excited. I think it’s important. Not important in a stuffy, haughty, academic way—quite the opposite. This is accessible theatre. This is Canadian theatre. But this isn’t Canadian theatre in a boring, small-town, stereotypical, hoser way—quite the opposite. This is the story of first and second generation Korean immigrants. But it’s not a drama. It’s not a sob story. It’s not about hardship (although it is about hard work). It’s not about painting a large group of people in broad strokes (although the story in large part does reflect the experiences of a huge number of Canadians, including my dad and his family). It’s about individuals. It’s about family. And there isn’t a white person in sight.
As a play, Kim’s Convenience is a lot of fun. It’s very funny, with some serious moments. The set—a convenience store—is really neat and very effective. The writing is excellent—playing off stereotypes without falling right into them; on occasion heartfelt but never sappy; well structured. The actors in this particular production are all excellent: Jane Luk as quiet, family-minded Umma (mom); Chantelle Han as energetic, contrary daughter Janet; playwright Ins Choi as headstrong, repentant son Jung; Andre Sills as various customers and as love interest/policeman Alex; and the brilliant Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Appa (dad). The play rests squarely on Lee’s shoulders, and he lifts it up high. His scenes with Han in particular are great fun, full of a feisty father-daughter enmity/love.
But works of art don’t exist in a vacuum. And that’s why Kim’s Convenience is not just a great play. It’s an exciting and important one too. Because there are no white characters on stage, ever. Because the women don’t play weak, small, supporting roles. Because the Asian—and black—characters portrayed aren’t just stereotypes; they are real, individual people. Because at no point is this an overt piece of activism; it’s just a story. A Canadian story, a current story, an engaging current Canadian story, one that we can be proud to call our own. A couple generations ago, all these characters could easily have been Ukrainian, or Hungarian, or Chinese. Now, they could be Filipino, or Ethiopian. The story would be different but the same.
I can’t tell you how exciting it was to see five non-white people hold their own on stage. Ins Choi has done an incredible, powerful thing in writing a comedy that tells his own family’s story, and in so doing created real, fun, engaging Asian characters. This is not a counter-culture work of art. This is a mainstream, mainstage play. And that is exactly why it is so unusual. And so important.
Kim’s Convenience runs until April 5th at the MTC Mainstage, and it is awesome. After that, it heads to the Vancouver Arts Club, April 24–May 24. Cross fingers that it will make it to your city soon.