The stage play Kim’s Convenience is no happy-go-lucky family sitcom, opening up lots of uncomfortable topics and unearthing an occasional dark family secret. But it does so with plenty of humor and an emphasis on reconciliation, resulting in an enjoyable and fast-paced play. It runs through June 22 at Taproot Theatre. Don’t wait: it’s a hot seller.
[Update 5/19/2022: Tacoma Arts Live will remount this production, with the same cast, directors, and design. The below review refers to Taproot’s 2019 production, but should closely reflect TAL’s 2022 run. Preview 6/2, opens 6/3 and runs through 6/19; tickets here.]
It’s become almost routine for theatre-makers to complain about Netflix as a competitor:
We’d have more people here if they turned off the Netflix.
Netflix can wait. There’s live theatre going on!
But in the case of Kim’s Convenience, on now through June 22 at Taproot Theatre, it appears Netflix is helping the theatre cause instead.
The stage play Kim’s Convenience, by Ins Choi, came first, as a close watching of the TV show’s opening credits reveals. But there’s little doubt that it’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show, streamed down on Netflix to American audiences in binge-worthy seasons, that has the most significant name recognition. And it’s made for a very hot theatre ticket at Taproot.
Both the play and the TV show center on a Korean Canadian family who own a convenience store in Regent Park, a working-class — but gentrifying — neighborhood of Toronto.
In the TV show family, the family patriarch (Appa) is a mostly likable character, simultaneously self-assured and befuddled, whether trying to parent his 20-something daughter, Janet; play awkward wingman to a friend; or fend off accusations that he’s homophobic by offering up an impromptu gay discount.
The stage play takes a somewhat darker approach. There, most of the parenting the audience sees is Appa trying to strong-arm (literally) his daughter into marriage; teach her “steal or no steal” (with several race-based versions, though in theory he targets all races equally with his concocted combinations); or, years before, go after his estranged son so brutally he sent him to the hospital (after his son proved to be a “steal” and emptied the store’s safe).
And yet, somehow, he’s a sympathetic character. Whether owing to notions of his more robust character on screen filtering in, or solely to Taproot’s treatment of the scripted person (including the excellent acting by James Yi, who has played the role in BC productions), I don’t know — but this portrayal takes a person perhaps unsympathetic on the page, and gives him dimension. Does he regret what he’s done? Yes. Will he ever say sorry, for anything, without being himself strong-armed into it? Probably not.
And so Appa ends up reconciling with his son, and maintaining his family’s legacy and his own, the only way he knows how. Whether audience members would themselves feel the warm and fuzzies if on the receiving end of his method of reconciliation, I don’t know; and I’m not sure it matters. What does matter is that their form of reconciliation works, for both him and his son, and it feels believable.
What doesn’t feel believable is Parker Kennedy as son Jung, who’s supposedly over 30 and something of a masculine badass. Kennedy, who seems barely age 20, comes across as far less sure of himself than one expects Jung — who’s been out on his own a good 15 years by this point — should be. Kennedy does what he can with the role, but it’s an odd casting choice.
The other thing to know about Jung is he’s a bit of a momma’s boy — which is a good thing here, because otherwise Umma, the mother, wouldn’t have any purpose in the play aside from bursting through the store now and then with a flurry of fast-speaking Korean. And this is a significant difference between the TV show and the play: an important and developed character in the show, here Umma (played by Annie Yim) does nothing in the store and little with her family, but spends all her time heading out to church.
Absent a prominent Umma character, Appa’s role in the play requires a worthy advocate with whom to spar, and he’s found that in Lia Lee as Janet, his 30-year-old daughter.
In the play, Umma’s character is minimal, even with an understanding of all her lines, most of which are delivered in Korean. (There’s an English translation in the script — but even absent having that on hand, Yim does a great job conveying for a largely non-Korean-speaking audience what she’s getting at.) Umma is given much more life in the TV show as a more robust character, and it’s better for it. Yim has the stage presence to play a richer character; it’s a shortcoming of the script that she’s not given the opportunity to do so.
Umma’s church is something of an interesting character of its own. In the stage play version, the church is being priced out due to soaring neighborhood prices and declining — and aging, probably — congregation size. Rather than rebuild elsewhere, the church deems it more fitting to disband, sell its assets, and give the money to mission work. It’s a small but interesting plot point, and one descriptive of the times, with neighborhoods changing quickly and churches increasingly finding themselves out of fashion. Contrast to the TV version, in which the church remains one of Umma’s favorite hangouts — alongside her devoted store work, however, rather than in lieu of it — and becomes a microcosm of personalities all its own.
Absent a prominent Umma character, Appa’s role in the play requires a worthy advocate with whom to spar, and he’s found that in Lia Lee as Janet, his 30-year-old daughter. Much to her parents’ embarrassment, Janet has no marriage prospects on the horizon (Umma on speculation that Janet is “the gay”: “at least I know reason why she has no boyfriend”), and still lives at home above the store with her parents (which helps with store coverage when Appa disappears to “take big ddong“). Janet is the new school, Appa is the old, and they spar over … well, just about everything. Hopping from serious (racism, others) to facetious (mimicking each other), they have good rhythm in tit-for-tat that makes for good comedic timing.
Appa has no shortage of sparring partners, as a matter of fact; that seems to be his chosen personality, which can get a little redundant (as well as uncomfortable, for reasons described later). Obadiah Freeman plays multiple characters fairly seamlessly, the preponderance of whom Appa will pick fights with over the course of the short (85-minute) play. Getting most stage time among Freeman’s characters is Alex, a police officer responding to Appa’s recurring illegal parking complaints (but only on Japanese cars). Alex is an old friend of Jung’s and goes on a date with Janet — prompting Appa’s attempt to commit them to marriage right there in the store.
Most uncomfortable — and perhaps most significant, thematically — of Freeman’s roles is an unnamed Black, dreadlocked, Jamaican-accented man who comes in and steals from Appa’s store. Appa pegs him as a thief from his entrance (“He is Black guy, jean jacket. That combo is steal combo”), and Janet decries the accusation as nothing more than racism. There’s a tangible groan when Appa’s accusation proves right. Appa uses his hapkido strongarm move, getting the merchandise, then an apology, then — going so far off the rails that it falls over into a laughing matter, albeit an uncomfortable one — getting the man to ask Jesus into his life, under force and duress.
It’s an awkward segment, demanded by the script, and which Taproot’s production probably does the best it can with. In the most charitable viewing, Choi’s introduction of several characters (including a successful businessman named Mr. Lee, and Alex the cop) shows some among many Black folks; Janet’s repeated decrying of Appa’s accusation helps to neutralize the message that Black people steal; Appa is supportive of Janet marrying a Black man (demanding she marry Alex whether or not she wants to, apparently); Appa’s “steal or no steal” targets different races across the board; and Appa’s message to his captive customer is that he does not need to steal, and must be a good example to Black children.
But is the latter simply patronizing, in an Asian man explaining to a Black man how to be a good example to his race? And is the audience’s take-away message, whether intentional or not, that it’s OK to profile because sometimes it’s accurate?
In short, it’s complicated — and in that way, it probably captures reality more so than we’d like. There are no easy answers on race. Some Asian and Black folks may have prejudice toward one another (and a complex relationship, as alluded to in a brief mention of the 1992 racially-fueled riots in L.A.). People of color are not a homogeneous group. Is this play’s opening up of these issues courageous or counterproductive? I have no definitive answers on that.
What I can say, and what I hope is the takeaway for many, is this: for an 85-minute comedy, this show has a lot wrapped up into it. It has characters who are all people of color (four Korean, one Black), resisting the theatrical default of White-centricity. It’s a timely show, tackling not only issues of race and modern families (including familial pressures and later coupling) but also the pace of development and pressures of gentrification, along with timeless issues of personal legacy and reconciliation.
In building this familiar TV world for the stage, Taproot’s production has done a terrific job. David Hsieh’s direction, in his Taproot directorial debut, is an asset alongside that of Scott Nolte, a veteran to Taproot’s mainstage. The show flowed at just the right pace, and their combined skill is evident here. Also obvious was the skill in set design from Mark Lund who, presumably, had a lot of fun designing this one. (Also: who’s getting all those snacks when the show closes?)
Kim’s Convenience is a welcome, bold show in Taproot’s lineup. And, as a recognized show from the screen, it’s a natural bridge for introducing Netflix-oriented audiences to live theatre, proving such a popular one that it’s selling out and forcing added shows. Not a bad problem for today’s live theatre to have.
Kim’s Convenience runs through 6/22 at Taproot Theatre’s Jewell Mainstage Theatre in Greenwood. Tickets up to $50, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are all multi-stall and gendered; main floor of theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.