Tuesday, May 21, 2019

From Stage to TV Back to Stage - “Kim's Convenience” Charms

Lia Lee and James Yi in Kim’s Convenience (Robert Wade)
Kim’s Convenience
Taproot Theatre
Through June 22, 2019

You might wonder how a Canadian television show is playing on stage at Taproot Theatre. They’re presenting Kim’s Convenience. It happens that the play preceded the tv show and Netflix tv producers loved the idea and turned it into a show and included the efforts of writer Ins Choi to continue the story started in his play.

In a pre-show talk, Choi described several aspects of the play that were very intentional. He said that he wasn’t used to seeing a lot of Koreans on television and most of them were intense and angry and he really wanted to show humor and lightness. He described his own family as really funny and cracking each other up.

He also didn’t want to sugarcoat the flaws of the family on stage. He said there were many Koreans with a lot of prejudices against non-Koreans. This particular characterization made its way firmly into aspects of the main character, Appa (father in Korean). It’s not meant to be acceptable; it’s meant to be true to real, complex individuals.

The play is about a small convenience store and the Kim family that owns it. While Appa (James Yi) and Umma (“mother” Annie Yim) came from Korea, where their lives were very different and we discover that Appa used to be a school teacher, here they created what they could and built a well-frequented convenience store to take care of their family. The kids, Jung (Parker Kennedy) and Janet (Lia Lee), are grown and Jung has left the family after a major upset some years ago and Janet wants to make her own choices.

The neighborhood is gentrifying. Mr. Lee (Obadiah Freeman, who plays several other roles), the “black man with the Asian last name”, comes to offer Mr. Kim a great offer to buy the store. He’s not likely to keep the store open, he’s probably going to tear it down and build something else. If the Kims built the store for their kids, but there are no kids who want it, what then?

David Hsieh, ReAct Theatre’s artistic director, joined Scott Nolte to direct this family comedy. Taproot put a lot of thought and heart into making sure that the cultural aspects ring true and that the spoken Korean of the two parents was robust and true.

They got some set assistance from a production in Vancouver, B.C., especially for a lot of the stocked shelf items. And then Mark Lund designed the rest of the store into Taproot’s space. It’s a well-stocked store, but I wished just a bit for more specificity of where windows were located, especially toward the front of the stage. It’s a difficult set of decisions regarding obstructing audience views, but just a little more structure would have helped.

Appa is definitely not the politically correct character. He stereotypes who might steal from the store by race and sexual preference. He thinks his daughter should be married and that he should be the one to approve her choice of husband. The tv equivalent of this man can only be Archie Bunker, another bigot that struggled to learn lessons. Yi, as Appa, is the perfect inscrutable father. He gives little away in his face and moves quickly without warning when he wants to.

Yim is the loving, but un-wave-making mother. She tries to “manage” the difficult parts of her husband, but understands his pressures and his desire to make a successful life for their children. Lee does a great job of being frustrated with her father, but realizing that she still lives at home and owes him respect.

Freeman takes on several roles and with the help of some awkward wigs, pulls off the changes nicely. He’s particularly funny as the old schoolmate of Jung’s who is now a policeman and maybe a suitor for Janet.

Kennedy doesn’t show up until near the end of this 90-minute play, but makes the most of it when he does. It’s a poignant moment that is very much the heart of the play and one that virtually any member of any family can relate to.

This is a generally family-friendly show, but there are a few “bad” words and the bigotry that might be confusing for children under about age 10 to understand, given many children at that age might not understand why it’s ok for that father to be prejudiced. There’s not a lot of room for gray in younger children’s understanding.

There are a lot of laughs to be had and maybe some Netflix watching to be done after seeing where the whole series came from.

For more information, go to www.taproottheatre.org or call 206-781-9707. 

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