Reasons to Love Toronto: No. 16, because the play of the year is set in a Korean corner store

Reasons to Love Toronto: No. 16, because the play of the year is set in a Korean corner store

For decades, the variety store has served as a centre of Korean-Canadian life—the place where new immigrants find work, build a community and hustle to sell enough chocolate bars and packs of smokes to provide for the next generation. As a kid, the playwright and actor Ins Choi would hang out at a store run by his best friend’s parents—“We’d eat, count the money, check out the porno magazines,” he says—so when he began writing his first play he chose to set it in that formative world. Kim’s Convenience was a huge hit at last year’s Fringe Festival, with audiences queuing around the block. Several theatre companies fought for production rights and the eventual winner, Soulpepper, opened its 2012 season with Kim’s.

Set in modern-day Regent Park, Choi’s play is centered on a first-generation immigrant named Mr. Kim. He’s a cantankerous Korean national who calls the police whenever he sees an illegally parked Japanese-made vehicle in front of his store. Performed by the actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Kim is a huge character—inadvertently hilarious, in the way that the very proud can be, but also capable of terrifyingly angry outbursts.

The play depicts a city in flux: condos are rising around Kim’s business, the neighbourhood is changing, and he rejects a developer’s offer to buy his store. He grapples with his legacy, argues with his daughter about her decision to become a photographer and quietly regrets his estrangement from his son (played by Choi himself), a brilliant kid Kim believes is squandering his potential.

While elements of the family drama may feel familiar, Choi places them in a contemporary and very Toronto story that feels totally new. In its charming way, Kim’s Convenience is one more step toward building a fictional world of stories as rich and diverse as the city itself.

The play sold out its first run at Soulpepper and is back this month for another three weeks. Choi is in talks to take the show across Canada and also plans to tour it in the U.S., and beyond. “My dream is to bring it to Seoul,” he says. He relishes the idea of taking his characters full circle—a journey from Korea to Toronto and back, via the convenience store.

(Images: Courtesy of Soulpepper Theatre)