I had a chance to check out Kim’s Convenience at the Toronto Fringe Festival last week, but getting a ticket was no easy feat. On Monday I made my first attempt to stand in line one hour before the show, which ultimately ended in utter disappointment. Tickets sold out about 90 people ahead of me. I left defeated, but determined to see the next show.
By Friday, I still had not been successful in my mission, and my hopes of seeing the play were quickly fading away. I arrived nearly three hours early to stand in the line that was already starting to form. Before I parked myself in a spot in the hot Toronto sun for the next three hours, I made my way over to the closest coffee shop to properly hydrate myself. I saw a familiar face sitting in the back. I’ve seen him before, but where? Then it hits me, it’s Ins Choi, one of the actors from Kim’s Convenience, who also happens to be the director, producer and playwright.
This is my moment. I timidly walk up to him, introduce myself, and for the next hour, he candidly chats with me about the play, its reviews and the wonderful reception its been getting. He describes the entire experience as humbling. “At the end of that first show, when the audience stood up applauding our curtain call, it felt like a homecoming. It still feels that way.”
We then proceed to walk out of the coffee shop towards the iconic department store Honest Ed’s where I join Choi on his search for the perfect notebook. This is when I ask him if he would consider becoming a playwright full-time after having so much success writing his first play. “Acting is still my bread and butter, but this play is my calling card. I feel I need to be out there both as a writer of colour and also as an actor of colour.”
By the end of our conversation, Choi bestows upon me the last available media ticket of the show. I’m elated. The golden ticket is finally in my hands. Choi excuses himself to prepare for the show while I make my way over to the ticketholder line-up (which is still 100 person strong). Once inside the theatre, I glance around expecting to see and hear a sea of Koreans chatting away before the lights go down, but much to my surprise the audience is as diverse as the city of Toronto. I asked Ins about this after the show, and the reason he believes so many non-Koreans have connected with the play so well is because, “It’s a common second generation story. I have had countless numbers of people, who were not Korean, come and tell me that they have actually had the same conversations with their parents that are in the play. Change the language and the colour, but it’s the same conversations.”
The play touches upon some deeply embedded assumptions of race and racism within the Korean community. This is a side you rarely see in public performances about Korean culture, and the last topic to ever be tackled by a Korean drama (which is often seen to truly represent Korea.) Choi explained that he wanted to “share both the beautiful and the ugly sides of my culture as a means of reaching out to other communities and inviting them into mine. I think that has been another reason why non-Koreans have connected to this play; they see their own community, good, bad and ugly, reflected in it.”
While the strong writing set the foundation for a successful show, the talented actors casted for Kim’s Convenience gracefully brought each of the characters to life moving me to tears on a number of occasions. The strong dialogue and raw passion ignited within me my own family narratives of the immigrant experience. Similar to the play’s story, in my own upbringing, I grew up with a deep recognition of the sacrifices and struggles my parents endured, but never fully appreciated it until adulthood. The play for me evoked feelings of conflict, pride and unconditional love for not just my own parents but for the millions of immigrant families that have come to Canada in search for a better life for future generations.
The success of Kim’s Convenience earned them seven new shows with nearly all advanced tickets already sold out. This is one play that everyone needs to see, as this story is quickly becoming the mainstream story of Canada.
Choi hopes to eventually take the story nationwide with stops in Vancouver (naturally) and an ideal stop being in California where the LA Riots took place. If given the opportunity to take the show on the road, the full production would include stories of how Koreans and African Americans worked together during the riots. For those of you in Toronto, beat the heat and get your advanced tickets online.
Julia Paek is an Asia Pacific strategist and intercultural specialist who focuses on education and community engagement. She is also a Masters of Asia Pacific Policy Studies Student at the Institute of Asian Research at UBC. Follow her on twitter @ecoseoul.