Can one TV show help change the world? Ins Choi thinks so.
The creator of the show “Kim’s Convenience” says that in today’s politically charged climate, it’s easy for people to feel threatened by people they do not know or understand. But he said “Kim’s Convenience,” which features a Korean Canadian family set in the multiethnic milieu of modern Toronto, helps break down barriers.
“Hate crimes are on the rise. There is xenophobia. … But I like to think that ‘Kim’s Convenience’ is a proactive way of neutralizing heat,” Choi says.
The show uses gentle humor, some drama and specific Korean Canadian cultural contexts and details to explore the immigrant experience in Canada, generational differences and family conflicts through the lens of a working-class family who owns a convenience store. The parents, Umma and Appa (mom and dad in Korean) work long, hard hours at their store; their daughter, Janet, is a college student; and their son, Jung, works at a car-rental company.
While most fans know the show from its three seasons on Netflix, “Kim’s Convenience” began as the first play Choi started writing in 2005 after years working as an actor in Canada. (Seattle audiences will get to see the play at Taproot Theatre May 15-June 22.)
After the play was initially rejected by several theater companies in a “polite” Canadian way, Choi says, he decided to take a chance on the Toronto Fringe Festival lottery. The play was accepted and after a sold-out run, moved on to Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest nonprofit theater company. It was a huge hit, with another sold-out run. After the success on stage, TV production companies began to get interested, and the first season of the TV show aired in 2016 on Canada’s national broadcaster, CBC.
Like many Asian Americans, Choi said Asian Canadians had little representation in the media when he was growing up. “It was just [scientist] David Suzuki and Bruce Lee. That was it. So I never thought, ‘I want to be an actor,’ I never thought, ‘I want to be a writer.’ I never heard of Asian writers. So it never was an option. I never saw Asians on TV or even stage.”
After encouragement from a program to develop Asian Canadian playwrights, Choi started working on “Kim’s Convenience.” When he had the chance to tell his own story, he took the opportunity to represent a different side of Asian Canadians than he had seen in the past. For example, the role of son Jung Kim, initially played on stage by Choi himself and now played by Simu Liu on the TV show, is conventionally handsome — tall, muscular, charming. Choi says this was a conscious choice.
“He definitely is very masculine and is a sex symbol,” Choi says. “And yes, put that out there and see how that influences my son and all the other young Asian boys who look on TV and see, oh, are we just all like nerds and in tech? … and then you have this one character, Jung.”
Canadian audiences and critics have responded to these more complex, nuanced portrayals of Asian Canadians, awarding the show six Canadian Screen Awards over the past two years, including best comedy. During its first season on CBC, the show was estimated to have more than 900,000 viewers.
This success comes at a unique moment for Asian Americans in popular entertainment, with the blockbuster success of “Crazy Rich Asians” earning $238 million on a $30 million budget, and Korean Canadian Sandra Oh becoming the first Asian woman to be Emmy nominated as a lead in a drama series and then being the first Asian Canadian or Asian American woman to host the Golden Globes. Choi says these events contributed to the opportunity for the show. “We gained some traction and momentum from our amazing American cousins. It feels great.”
At Taproot Theatre, Seattle audiences will have the opportunity to experience the play version of “Kim’s Convenience,” which Choi calls the “soul” of the TV show. Choi says the play version is more dramatic than the show, and is set in one day six years after the show takes place.
The Taproot production will feature a cast of all Korean American actors, and is co-directed by longtime Seattle actor, director and theater artist David Hsieh.
Hsieh is thrilled to have the opportunity to work on the show. “What I love about this piece in particular is that it gives really authentic portrayal of an immigrant family. They happen to be [from] Korea but they could be from anywhere,” Hsieh says. He says he and co-director and Taproot producing artistic director Scott Nolte worked to create authenticity in the production, “to avoid stereotype and caricature [and] to really make it believable.”
To that end, in addition to Choi’s Korean Canadian-centered script, Hsieh says the Taproot set has been carefully crafted to look like the inside of a convenience store, while still allowing audiences to see the action from all angles.
Choi says he sees the play and show slowly bridging gaps between people and communities through incremental changes in perception and understanding.
“Hopefully if enough of those changes happen, it helps society become better and healthier and more understanding and compassionate,” Choi says. “And I like to think it makes the world a better place.”
“Kim’s Convenience,” May 15-June 22; Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; $15-$50; 206-781-9707, taproottheatre.org