Bayview Post - - Arts - by Bron­wen Keyes-Be­van

By now, Kim’s Con­ve­nience al­most needs no in­tro­duc­tion. Cen­tred around the Kims, a fam­ily of Korean-Cana­di­ans who own a con­ve­nience store in Toronto, the sit­com features Jean Yoon as one of the leads. The stage play, orig­i­nally writ­ten and di­rected by Ins Choi, was re­cently de­vel­oped into a tele­vi­sion se­ries for CBC, pre­mier­ing last fall to great ac­claim. Kim’s

Con­ve­nience is just one of a host of re­cent shows, such as Fresh of the Boat and Sec­ond Jen, to ex­plore the ex­pe­ri­ences of Asian com­mu­ni­ties in North Amer­ica.

Based in Toronto, ac­tress and play­wright Yoon cur­rently stars in both the tele­vi­sion se­ries and the play. (There have been other on­stage Um­mas). Yoon orig­i­nated the role of Umma — Korean for “mother” — in Kim’s Con­ve­nience the play and, to date, has put in over 300 per­for­mances across six cities. The TV show, co-pro­duced by Thun­der­bird and Soulpep­per, has been re­newed for a sec­ond sea­son and re­cently gar­nered 11 Cana­dian Screen Awards nom­i­na­tions, with Yoon nab­bing one for Best Ac­tress.

“I am proud and grate­ful that our show re­ceived 11 CSA nom­i­na­tions across a range of dis­ci­plines,” Yoon says. “I can’t quite be­lieve that both An­drea Bang and I are nom­i­nated next to gi­ants of com­edy Cather­ine O’Hara and Kim Cat­trall. Pinch me: is this real?”

This isn’t the first time Kim’s Con­ve­nience has gar­nered recog­ni­tion. Af­ter its main­stage pre­miere at Soulpep­per the­atre, Kim’s

Con­ve­nience won Best New Cana­dian Play from the Toronto The­atre Crit­ics. Pre­vi­ous to this, the play won Best of Fringe at the Toronto Fringe Fes­ti­val.

It was in 2011 that Yoon first played Umma in the stage pro­duc­tion. Set al­most en­tirely within the Kim fam­ily’s con­ve­nience store in Re­gent Park, Mr. Kim, played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, dreams of his chil­dren tak­ing over the busi­ness, but his daugh­ter Janet (Rosie Si­mon) wants to be a pho­tog­ra­pher, and his son Jung (played by Richard Lee in T.O. and Mon­treal; and Choi in N.Y.C.) is estranged from the fam­ily. Mean­while, the neigh­bour­hood is trans­form­ing. Con­dos have be­gun to sprout up, and the ar­rival of Wal­mart threat­ens the Kims’ busi­ness. It is an hi­lar­i­ous and heart-touch­ing play that is at once a por­trait of ev­ery­day Cana­dian life, a cel­e­bra­tion of the re­source­ful­ness of im­mi­grants and a so­cial com­men­tary on a city that is chang­ing at a rapid pace.

“I’m a Toronto girl pretty much through and through,” says Yoon. The ac­tress was ac­tu­ally born in the States but moved to T.O. at a young age when her aca­demic fa­ther got a job at the Univer­sity of Toronto. The fam­ily moved around the city a lot, and dur­ing her for­ma­tive years, Yoon at­tended a num­ber of schools — Huron Street, Roy­wood and Har­ri­son Pub­lic Schools, Wind­fields Ju­nior High and York Mills Col­le­giate. Fol­low­ing grad­u­a­tion she un­der­took a de­gree at U of T.

“Along the way, I fell in love with act­ing and with drama,” says Yoon of her time at York Mills Col­le­giate. “I had ex­traor­di­nar­ily good drama teach­ers in high school.”

De­spite her teach­ers’ prow­ess, they were cau­tious about en­cour­ag­ing her to pur­sue an act­ing ca­reer.

“I was dis­cour­aged from pur­su­ing it by pretty much ev­ery­one,” Yoon says. “Even my drama teach­ers were con­cerned. At the time, there were no Asians on TV. All you could see was a life­time of hard­ship.”

Her par­ents, both sci­en­tists and aca­demics, cer­tainly had their reser­va­tions about their daugh­ter’s ca­reer plans. “There were some epic bib­li­cal bat­tles,” Yoon re­mem­bers. Against ev­ery­one’s ad­vice, Yoon pur­sued her dream and soon landed roles in a Shake­speare in High Park pro­duc­tion of

and the Obie Award–win­ning play But it was not long be­fore Yoon ex­pe­ri­enced first-hand the se­vere short­age of roles for ac­tors of colour. “It was not a good time to be an Asian ac­tor. In Canada or any­where,” she says. “I hit the glass ceil­ing be­fore I even started.”

Fed up with the lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties and the con­stant re­jec­tion that plagues all ac­tors, she quit act­ing and moved to China to teach English.

“The­atre breaks your heart over and over again,” she says. “It’s like the bad boyfriend who is su­per sexy and tells you how beau­ti­ful you are, but then, all of a sud­den, some other new shiny thing comes along, and all that’s left is a debt on your credit card and a whole lot of dirty laun­dry.”

Yoon spent two sep­a­rate years in China and af­ter her sec­ond stint re­turned to T.O. to find a chang­ing land­scape for ac­tors of colour. A new aware­ness of cul­tural di­ver­sity and non-tra­di­tional cast­ing was grow­ing in Canada’s the­atre, film and tele­vi­sion in­dus­tries, and Yoon took up a post as cross-cul­tural co-or­di­na­tor at The­atre On­tario. She then helped re­vive Ca­hoots The­atre Projects, a the­atre com­pany with a man­date to present cul­tur­ally in­clu­sive work. The com­pany is still go­ing strong. Yoon started to de­velop her own work, and in 2000 mounted

The Yoko Ono Project, a multi-me­dia per­for­mance art com­edy about Ono and her art. The play earned a Dora Ma­vor Moore Award nom­i­na­tion and sev­eral Jessie Richard­son Awards. Yoon then adapted a Korean folk­tale for the stage, en­ti­tled Hongbu

and Nolbu: The Tale of the Magic Pump­kins, for Young Peo­ple’s The­atre. Co­in­ci­den­tally, Kim’s Con­ve­nience cre­ator Ins Choi and Richard Lee, cur­rently Jung, also per­formed in this play. Yoon also worked ex­ten­sively on tele­vi­sion, ap­pear­ing on shows such as Or­phan Black, and also voices Con­nie on the Emmy Award­win­ning PBS show Peg + Cat.

This sum­mer Kim’s Con­ve­nience will have its U.S. pre­miere in New York with Soulpep­per. Yoon is ex­cited for the pre­miere and is con­fi­dent the play will trans­late well to U.S. au­di­ences.

“I think it’s time for Cana­di­ans to stop apol­o­giz­ing and cov­er­ing up our Cana­dian-ness. Amer­i­cans will have to figure it out.”

Kim’s Con­ve­nience is at the Young Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts through March 4, at the Se­gal Cen­tre in Mon­treal March 819, and at the Per­sh­ing Square Sig­na­ture Cen­ter in New York City in July.

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