As a second-generation Korean immigrant to Canada, Ins Choi has many stories to tell. A versatile artist taking the roles of playwright, director, actor, poet, and musician, Choi spins his tales in creative ways. Recently, I had the privilege to conduct an online interview with the multi-talented Choi, and to experience two very different works of his—the one-act play Kim’s Convenience and his solo performance Subway Stations of the Cross.
Choi’s debut play Kim’s Convenience first appeared in the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2011, garnering the “Best New Play”, the “Patrons’ Pick Award”, and the “Best of the Fringe” honor. Since the debut, Toronto’s renowned Soulpepper Theatre had introduced the play to a wider audience, mounting it successfully in subsequent years. It was heartily received.
Choi was born in Korea, immigrated to Canada with his family when he was a year old and grew up in Scarborough, Metro Toronto. His father’s first job in Canada was in his uncle’s convenience store. In that microcosm of the family-run grocery, Choi had the first taste of the multiplicity of immigrant living, and extracting from those early experiences, he develops the story idea for Kim’s Convenience.
It is a brave move to use the setting of an immigrant family convenience store for a stage production. Further, the main character, Mr. Kim (Appa), speaks in broken English, and at times with his wife, Umma, in Korean. The novelty is audacious. How would the audience receive such an ‘ethnic’ story? To the playwright’s delight, people embrace it. “I think what’s universal about this play is that it’s about family and the future of a family business,” Choi says.
Soulpepper Theatre’s successful mounts following the play’s Fringe debut cast away the playwright’s initial doubts. Kim’s Convenience won two Toronto Theatre Critics Awards: “Best Male Actor” for Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (who plays Mr. Kim, or, Appa), and “Best New Canadian Play”. The script was published in book form by House of Anansi Press in 2012. Currently, the production is on a cross-Canada tour directed by Weyni Mengesha. The next phase is the United States and then other parts of the world. A TV comedy series based on Kim’s Convenience is also in the works.
Despite the differences in cultural background for most viewers, they soon find Mr. Kim’s family has similar issues they may face, such as generational conflicts, clashes in values, and the challenge of expressing love. Audiences can readily empathize with the pains of an estranged father/son relationship, or a daughter who is unwilling to take up the family business but wants to chart her own course as a photographer. To his daughter, Appa says:
“We hope you can be doctor, lawyer, big success, but what you do? Take picture. We don’t have to come to Canada for you take picture. Even you can take picture in North Korea.”
Ah, discrepancies in expectations: no cultural barriers there, and we appreciate the laugh.
The father/daughter scuffle soon takes the form of cost-benefit accounts. We hear the supposedly loving yearning of Elizabeth Browning’s poetic line echo in a twisted, hilarious way as the qualm now becomes: “How do you owe me? Let me count the ways.” During a heated argument, Janet uses the calculator right by the till to tally up the amounts her father owes her for all the hours she has spent working in the store since her student days. In turn, Appa is quick to rebut his daughter with the room and board through the years, ski lessons, music lessons—there is no resolution in monetary terms, of course, except as an audience, we are sensitized to the notion that we are all recipients of grace.
“What’s your exit plan?” a realtor friend, Mr. Lee, a Kenyan immigrant ‘with a Korean last name’, comes into the store and asks Appa, presenting an attractive offer. Even though getting close to retirement age, it is the first time Appa is confronted with the question. The notion also carries layered meaning. Choi cleverly gives it a little twist. Appa is a quick study. He turns around and uses the same question on his daughter, who is thirty years-old and still single: “What’s your exit plan, Janet?”
When it comes to race relations, Choi is just as bold and direct. As a comedic resolution, we see Janet and a black policeman falling for each other. Appa is happy to see Janet finally has an ‘exit plan’, albeit Janet feels less urgent. So after some real arm-twisting from Appa, a promise of marriage is elicited from both lovers. In the playbill, there’s a Fight Director listed, and I can understand why.
In another scene, Appa teaches Janet customer profiling, which ones are ‘steal’, which are ‘no steal’. Listening to his instructions, Janet bursts out: “That’s racist!” She could have exclaimed: “That’s sexist!” or “That’s ageist!” It might take an ethnic minority to overtly confront these issues. Choi has utilized that key well. The ingenuity here is the subtle inference. In Appa’s hilarious stereotyping, we see our own prejudices; in his blind spots, we see our own foibles.
Kim’s Convenience is more than just a comedy; it is also a version of the prodigal son, with Choi himself taking up the role. The play gratifies with forgiveness and reconciliation. These themes reflect another integral part of Choi’s upbringing. In the immigrant community, the Korean grocery store to a large extent intersects with the Korean Church. Often a couple would take turns minding the store and going out to attend church services. After his initial job at a convenience store, Choi’s father later became a pastor and led the Korean Bethel Church in Toronto. That was the place that first sparked the love of the theatre for young Choi:
“Watching [my father] tell stories on stage every Sunday and making people laugh, moving them to tears, inspiring them to live a better life, to be more compassionate … that, I think was the biggest influence for me to pursue the arts, “ he recalls.
There is also another mentor. “My youth pastor, David Ryu, at the time, during one of those coffee houses did this very emotionally charged movement piece… The courage to do something like that … at church… stayed with me. I don’t remember a single sermon he preached over the decade he was there but I’ll never forget that performance.” That seed ultimately comes to fruition in the playwright’s recent achievements.
If Kim’s Convenience is iconoclastic, Choi’s solo, spoken word performance of Subway Stations of the Cross is audacious. He appears on stage slowly and silently as a barefoot, homeless man wearing layers of odd clothing, a headband gathering shoulder-length hair, and a tiny, old guitar hung on his neck. He places a large piece of cardboard on the floor, sets up a mike stand and looks his audience in the eyes. The house lights remain on, for this homeless man wants to see the reactions of his onlookers, who are unable to pass by as in real life situations, but are left to watch and hear him up close and personal. He begins to mutter and sing softly.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare… declare… éclair…chocolate…”
The character is inspired by a mentally ill, homeless man Choi has met and befriended on the street in Toronto. His portrayal on stage is effective and his singing voice mesmerizes.
“God is calling you to dance. He fancies you to take the chance… You’ve got nothing to prove cause God is, God is calling you to dance.”
The subway stations do not run a linear line, but the track is explicitly Jesus. This in itself is a bold act for an artist on the public stage. The homeless man takes us through his ramblings via songs, raps, rants, and poetry. We can take him for the fool on the hill. But we soon find that he is well-versed in topics from mythology to pop culture, Biblical stories to Japanese anime. His social commentaries are spot-on, his songs captivating, his insights lucid.
“I’m afraid we’re all being played. Chasing the insatiable security. Consuming, consuming, till consumed. I’m afraid we’re all being played.”
We hear him sing a song of the 1980’s sitcoms like an Oscars host. We hear him rap in Latin, Hebrew, French and Korean. We are provoked on multiple fronts. The mashed up, postmodern style speaks aptly; in our time, the words of the prophets could well be written on the subway walls.
“We’re busy with our renos, while they live in a tent.”
At a certain point, the man takes out a loaf of bread from his bag, pinches a hole and begins to carve out the inside, throwing crumbs on the floor.
“A baby in a manger… a stranger… endangered. Manger, In French means to eat. Jesus, given to be eaten.”
“How would Jesus react to the Church today? Would he be accepted or barred due to dress code? Birkenstock or Crocs? Recycle? Resurrect Elvis?”
In the talkback after the performance, Choi stresses that he does not write with a message in mind. If there were anything he would want to leave with his audience, it would be an image rather than a message.
And what an image that is. After a sixty-minute journey, we are brought to the end station. The man tapes the loaf of bread on top of the mike stand, takes out a bottle from his bag and out pours red wine into the hole he has made in the bread. Then, he extends the mike stand up. He takes out a miniature ram’s horn, blows it while circling around the stand several times. After that, he exits the stage as quietly as he has come in. We are left with the image of the bread hung high and the sound of dripping wine onto the cardboard floor. And the stage lights dim.