Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
In the stairwell at the Young People’s Theatre are selected photos of past productions. A colourful image on the far left shows a young Ins Choi performing in a production of Hongbu and Nolbu: The Tale of the Magic Pumpkins, a play based on a Korean folktale commissioned and produced by Young People’s Theatre in 2005. It was written by prolific actor and playwright Jean Yoon.
A scant six years after Choi played Noblu in Yoon’s play, Yoon took on the role of Umma in Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience. The rest, as they say, is history. Choi’s play has been a runaway hit for Soulpepper. It has toured nationally and spawned a TV version that has garnered 11 Canadian Screen Awards nominations, including Best Comedy Series. The initial struggle to produce Kim’s Convenience – and its subsequent success on stage and television – have been much written about. There has been a lot of discussion about just why Kim’s continues to strike a strong chord with Canadian audiences – not the least because it depicts the first Asian family to be featured on mainstream Canadian television.
Its success owes as much to the poignant humour of Choi’s story (of the loving yet dysfunctional Kim family who operate a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park) as to the actors who bring it to life. Much of the appeal of Kim’s Convenience lies with acclaimed actors Jean Yoon and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee. They originated the roles of Umma and Appa at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011, and have played them in stage versions produced by Soulpepper across Canada. They also play them on the hit CBC TV series and the current Toronto production on stage at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. “Can I say how much I love this character (Umma), how much I love playing her?” enthuses Yoon.
The American-born and Canadian-based Yoon has had a varied and distinguished 20-year career. In addition to writing Hongbu and Nolbu: The Tale of the Magic Pumpkins, a play of which she remains “very, very proud,” she is acclaimed for creating The Yoko Ono Project, a multi-media performance art comedy which was nominated for a Dora Award for Outstanding New Play in 2000, then revived as Yes Yoko Solo and published in 2002. And all this in addition to extensive stage and screen work and being a mother. Though this has meant occasionally sharing the role of Umma with other actors, the role continues to occupy a central spot on her demanding performance calendar – and for good reason: “Working on Kim’s Convenience satisfies all my deepest and truest intentions as an artist – bringing to life a multidimensional character based on women I know intimately – my mother, my grandmothers, the ajimas in my Korean community,” Yoon muses. “She is a fully three-dimensional character with loves, faults and secrets.”
Lee’s path shares a similar integrity. He emigrated from Korea as a child, and like Umma and Uppa, his parents ran a shop, above which the family lived. He used this experience to help Choi to develop the Appa character – and has been playing him continuously since 2011. He concedes that as he has matured over the years, a confidence has grown from inhabiting the character: “I have an even deeper connection and understanding of what makes him tick, who he is and how he would respond to anything.” Despite their long and strong associations with their characters, both Yoon and Lee express not fatigue, but an abiding affection for the roles. “Playing Umma gives me an opportunity to explore rich narrative and emotional lines that validate the experience of my family and community in a way I could only dream of before,” says Yoon. And it’s a good thing, since Kim’s Convenience is keeping both actors busy! The play has returned to Toronto following a successful run in Halifax and will soon head to Montreal before an off-Broadway run in New York City in July as part of a month-long festival of Canadian Soulpepper works presented as Soulpepper on 42nd Street.
The Korean-Canadian viewing public has validated the actors’ endorsement of the material: “The response from the Korean community has overwhelmingly enthusiastic,” says Yoon. “I was never in doubt that younger Korean-Canadians would embrace the show, but I wondered if older Koreans would feel the same. But yes, they love it too, so I think we got the balance just right.” Lee knows a lot of Korean-Canadians who were initially reluctant to watch a show about their community, for fear that the show would “suck” or present them in an unrealistic and unflattering manner. “I mean, no one wants to be the butt of a joke,” he avers. “But once word got out that the show was well done (with respects to writing and acting), they suddenly had something to rally around and be proud of.”
Yoon reasons that Korean-Canadians appreciate seeing themselves on screen for the first time – and not as minor characters fulfilling a diversity quota. And by reflecting a contemporary Canadian identity, the stories have a cross-generational, cross-cultural appeal. Yoon marvels about “parents and children who watch the show together across the country, Torontonians with a sense of humour who feel they are seeing their city represented in a way they recognize, television aficionados that love nuanced comedy. It’s remarkable the range of people who are responding to the show.”
And sometimes that response takes the most unexpected shape. Yoon recently attended the funeral of a respected elder in her community, a “quiet and thoughtful affair” which, for her, took an odd turn when she was approached by many Korean elders gushing – in Korean – about how much they enjoyed the show. “My Korean is limited, so it was all very sweet but very awkward,” she admits. Later, she found herself speaking with the grandchildren who took her aside to share their enthusiasm for the show. “They related that they loved one episode in particular – “Funeral Photo” – which had great tragic-comic resonance in their family. Laughter and tears. Humour heals.” Yoon loves in particular to hear about families watching the show together. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since so many of the stories revolve around parent-child dynamics – something all families can relate to. She smiles, “I feel blessed that our show has met such warm and enthusiastic response, not just from the academy, but from a growing fanbase across Canada.”
But why such a strong resonance with the viewing public? Yoon and Lee are too gracious to discuss their own talents. Each has earned a Canadian Screen Awards nomination for their portrayal, yet neither mentions it. They point instead to the merit of the show’s scripts, which provide them considerable acting scope. “I am an actor,” offers Yoon. “My job is to lift the character off the page. The writers shape (Umma’s) story. I bring it to life.” Choi, who acted in the play, doesn’t appear in the series, and the role of Jung that he originated on stage is now played onscreen by Simu Liu. Choi did co-create the television show with Kevin White (Corner Gas), and he co-writes the bulk of the scripts, which has ensured a consistency between the characterizations in the play and the show.
One difference is that the episodic nature of the series has spawned the gradual revelation of each character’s back story. There haven’t been any major shifts in Yoon’s performance from earlier iterations of Umma in the play, but Yoon notes there is quite a bit of difference between “Umma in the play versus Umma in the television show”. The television show affords Umma a whole new range of dilemmas and situations, more connection and interaction with Appa, Janet, and a life at church outside of the family. “We see a side of her that is much lighter and brighter and younger, “Yoon explains. “She goes out, sings at karaoke, has a mysterious past that includes ballroom dancing and the selling of hats….” And, she muses, with a tantalizing wink, “who knows what else she’s done?”
Lee explains that the goal for his portrayal of Appa is to make him a fully-realized character with strengths and weaknesses: “I consciously decided to make Appa as human and flawed as possible – to make him real and not a caricature.” Yoon stresses how the quality of the writing makes this possible: “Co-creators Ins Choi and Kevin White gave us fantastic material to work with last season, and I feel completely confident that they’ll be sketching out funny, heart-breaking, outrageously truthful stories for all our characters in the second season.” Lee’s simple request for next season? “More of the same, please!”
Season 2 is in pre-production, but months away from its return to the CBC airwaves. In the meantime, the original Kim’s Convenience, featuring Yoon and Lee in the roles they have made famous on stage and screen, has conveniently returned to Soulpepper until March 4. With the bonus of Choi, who has come far since 2005’s Hongbu and Nolbu, reprising his role as errant son Jung on February 23, 24 and 25, this is a welcome late-winter tonic for pining TV fans and lovers of theatre alike.
News You Can Use
What: Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi, featuring Ins Choi (Jung*), Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (Appa), Richard Lee (Jung), Ronnie Rowe Jr. (Rich, Mr. Lee, Mike, Alex), Rosie Simon (Janet) and Jean Yoon (Umma); directed by Weyni Mengesha
Who: Audiences 12 years and up
When: On stage until March 4, 2017 *The role of Jung will be played by Ins Choi on February 23, 24 and 25.
Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON M5A 3C4
Information and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya