Off-Broadway Review: “Kim’s Convenience” at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “Kim’s Convenience” at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre (Through Saturday July 15, 2017)
Written by Ins Choi
Directed by Weyni Mengesha
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

In a transformative eighty-five minutes, Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) identifies “his story” in two very different ways. These diverse – and seemingly mutually exclusive stories – are the grit of Ins Choi’s “Kim’s Convenience,” currently running at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre as part of the Soulpepper on 42nd Street Festival.

Appa has built a successful business in Canada after leaving North Korea and has given his life to maintain the business. Even the threat of a Walmart opening in his now gentrified neighborhood does not deter his resolve not to sell his business to Mr. Lee (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) his “black friend with Korean last name.” In a conversation with his daughter Janet (Rosie Simon), Appa sums up the first version of his story: “What is my story? Hm? What is story of me, Mr. Kim? My whole life is this store. Everybody know this store, they know me. This store is my story. And if I just sell store then my story is over. Who is Mr. Kim? Nobody know that. You take over store, my story keep going.” So, if Janet – who aspires to be a photographer – agrees to take over running the store, Appa’s “story” will continue.

This is a rather selfish concept and serves to distinguish first and second-generation arrivals to America from other countries – each having vastly different cultural values and expectations. Unrelated to cultural differences might be Appa’s demeaning attitude toward his daughter and his wife Umma (Jean Yoon). Playwright Ins Choi burdens Appa with a mean-spirited disposition that makes the character rather unlikable and casts doubt on Appa’s turn-around at the play’s end when, after greeting his “lost son,” the father redefines what “his story” is.

Appa’s son Jung (Ins Choi) left home at 16 after a horrible fight with his father that landed the teenage in the hospital “for a few days” and prompted him to empty the business’s safe and run away. When Jung returns (first revealing himself to his mother in church), he is contrite of spirit and heart and, like the prodigal son, is welcomed by the father (who gave him everything, after all) with open arms and the gift of the business. Appa’s new story is: “What is my story? What is story of me, Mr. Kim? My whole life I doing this store. Is this store my story? No. My story is not ‘Kim’s Convenience’. My story…is you. And Janet. And Umma. And Sonam. You understand?” This “conversion,” though sudden but predictable, defines the everyone lives happily ever after ending of the play.

Much happens between the recounting of Mr. Kim’s stories, including Appa’s acceptance of Janet’s aspirations – after another brutal physical exchange between father and daughter, an exchange oddly seen as funny by the audience. Or perhaps the reaction is not too odd. The play is a well-written episode of a sit-com replete with ethnic, sexist, and racist encumbrances, the kind often found on television sit-coms. The kind audiences continue to find funny. Freud was right, we laugh at things we find uncomfortable and unfamiliar. In fact, “Kim’s Convenience” has found its way onto Canadian television as a new series co-produced by Soulpepper and Thunderbird Films.

Under Weyni Mengesha’s astute direction, the ensemble cast tackles their characters with a high level of believability. Ken MacKenzie’s set is a splendid reproduction of a convenience store which the audience was warned ad infinitum “not to photograph.” A warning in the pre-curtain announcement would have sufficed.

If sit-com is something an audience member likes, then “Kim’s Convenience” works as likable product. If one is looking for something a bit more serious related to generation gaps and cultural conflicts (works by Amy Tan, James McBride, or Jamaica Kincaid for example) one might find oneself wondering what all the hooting and hollering is all about.