An Archie Bunker for Toronto

Award-win­ning Toronto play Kim’s Con­ve­nience ready to make its comedic de­but on CBC-TV

North Toronto Post - - Arts - By Ron John­son

Ins Choi was happy when his play

Kim’s Con­ve­nience made it into the Toronto Fringe Fes­ti­val. That was enough for a young kid fresh out of act­ing school at York Univer­sity.

Now, af­ter many stage pro­duc­tions at Soulpep­per Theatre Com­pany, tours, ac­co­lades and ac­claim, Choi’s plucky com­edy about a Korean fam­ily run­ning a con­ve­nience store is about to make its pre­miere on CBC-TV this fall.

“Oh man, it’s like a dream come true,” says Choi, dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at the CBC build­ing along­side Soulpep­per’s head hon­cho Al­bert Schultz, who is help­ing to pro­duce the CBC-TV se­ries.

“I was happy with the Fringe. I was so glad just to get it on­stage. And re­cently, it’s just be­come so timely,” Choi adds.

Kim’s Con­ve­nience is set in the Re­gent Park neigh­bour­hood of Toronto and tells the story of a Korean fam­ily whose lives are cen­tred around the run­ning of a neigh­bour­hood con­ve­nience store.

It is funny but also quite poignant and dra­matic, touch­ing on uni­ver­sal themes.

It’s a play about a spe­cific im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence that breaks through bound­aries and ex­presses some uni­ver­sal truths that al­low au­di­ences to laugh and learn at the same time — a pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion.

It pre­miered at the Fringe in 2011, tak­ing Best New Play hon­ours, and was re­mounted by Soulpep­per in 2012. More awards fol­lowed, in­clud­ing two Toronto Theatre Crit­ics’ As­so­ci­a­tion awards as well as a Dora Award nom­i­na­tion for Out­stand­ing New Play.

Al­though Choi had stud­ied to be­come an ac­tor and was a mem­ber of the Soulpep­per act­ing academy when the play won the Fringe prize, his roots are in the writ­ten word.

“Writ­ing has al­ways hap­pened on my own since I was young, and I never shared it with any­one,” he says.

“There are books and books of my writ­ing, sto­ries, po­ems. My fa­ther is a pas­tor, so maybe be­ing on­stage with his voice and see­ing him at home writ­ing — he still uses pen and pa­per — that maybe in­spired me to do that.”

Choi didn’t even think about act­ing as a teenager, opt­ing in­stead to spend his time on a skate­board or play­ing sports in the Finch and War­den area of Scar­bor­ough and, ap­par­ently, work­ing in a few con­ve­nience stores of his own along the way, in­clud­ing one at Yonge and Shep­pard.

On a whim, he de­cided to try for a part in the school mu­si­cal.

“I au­di­tioned for Damn Yan­kees just be­cause I wanted to,” he ex­plains. “And that ex­pe­ri­ence of putting up a show for the first time, that com­mu­nity that theatre cre­ates, it was re­ally strong. I loved it, but I didn’t know you could do that for a liv­ing.”

When Choi grad­u­ated from York, he looked around the the­atri­cal land­scape in the city and de­cided, if he was go­ing to get on­stage, he’d have to make it hap­pen him­self.

He ended up join­ing the play­writ­ing unit at the then­fledgling Asian-Cana­dian theatre com­pany fu-GEN.

In ad­di­tion, he joined the act­ing academy at Soulpep­per, where his script found its way into the hands of Schultz.

Choi en­tered a very early form of Kim’s Con­ve­nience in a Toronto Fringe con­test.

The win­ner would get free ad­mit­tance into the pop­u­lar theatre fes­ti­val.

If there is one thing about the play that could not change in the adap­tion to TV, it was the char­ac­ter of Appa, the fam­ily pa­tri­arch. Toronto ac­tor Paul Sun- Hyung Lee plays the char­ac­ter so won­der­fully that he has re­ally made it his own.

“He’s been in ev­ery pro­duc­tion across the coun­try,” says Schultz.

“It re­minds me of Archie Bunker, this iconic char­ac­ter. You love him even though he’s say­ing things that are out­ra­geous. And it works for him.”

Jean Yoon also made the jump from Soulpep­per to the CBC with her por­trayal of Appa’s wife, Umma.

But, for TV, Choi di­aled the time back a few years to when the two chil­dren were in their early 20s, es­sen­tially writ­ing him­self out of an act­ing gig in the process.

“The daugh­ter and son in the play are 30 and 32, but in the show they are 20 and 24. She’s in art school, and he is at a car rental place work­ing kind of a dead-end job,” says Choi.

“But it’s OK. In sea­son two, I could write in that weird un­cle on the street. I’ll play that un­cle.”

The new for­mat did al­low for a more ful­some ex­plo­ration of the comedic ter­rain.

So de­spite los­ing an act­ing role, Choi sounds as if he’s hav­ing fun cre­at­ing new sto­ry­lines for his beloved char­ac­ters.

“Cre­at­ing and writ­ing th­ese char­ac­ters has been very re­fresh­ing,” Choi ex­plains, not­ing in par­tic­u­lar a friendly ri­valry de­vel­op­ing be­tween Mr. Kim and his Chi­nese neigh­bour, Mr. Chen.

“I thought, ‘OK, there is a whole world here. It was very nar­row in the play, but be­cause this is TV, I can ex­plore all th­ese new char­ac­ters and a new kind of com­edy.’ ”

Kim’s Con­ve­nience will pre­miere on CBC-TV this fall.

L-R: ‘Kim’s Con­ve­nience’ cast An­drew Phung as Kim­chee, Jean Yoon as Umma, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Appa and Simu Liu as Jung

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