At TheatreSquared, ‘Kim’s Convenience’ is story of immigrant dreams

<br>At TheatreSquared, ‘Kim’s Convenience’ is story of immigrant dreams

There are no subtitles for the scenes in which Korean is spoken in “Kim’s Convenience,” on stage through Feb. 19 at TheatreSquared. And that might be the whole point of the script by Ins Choi that became a big hit on Netflix.

“You may think: ‘Well, how the heck am I going to understand what is going on?’” says Natalie Kim, who plays Janet, the daughter of the owners of Kim’s Convenience store. “Hearing a language you don’t understand forces you to rely on other senses: Your sight: How are people feeling? Your ears: Are their voices happy? Downtrodden? Excited? You need your heart to try and understand how the person is feeling and what is happening.”

The language “barrier” creates an opportunity for both actors and audiences, agrees Karen Tsen Lee, who plays Umma — Mom — of “finding those moments that an American audience can recognize, universal themes like hard work, love, compassion, disappointment, sacrifice.”

“I know for me, working on this show has helped me realize that culturally, there are so many similarities to my castmates that I didn’t realize I have,” says Brandon Jones, who is from Paris, Ky., and plays four different non-Korean characters in the play. “Keeping an open mind and accepting that there may be things you don’t fully understand from a cultural standpoint, and staying open to the fact that these are human beings just like you and I who are doing the same thing we all are doing — trying to make our way in the world, provide for our family, be safe and secure — will allow an audience to go on this ride with us.”

Premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival in July 2011,”Kim’s Convenience” is the story of a family-run Korean variety store facing the challenges of a changing neighborhood. Mr. Kim’s immigrant path toward building a life for his family in Canada is on the line when a developer makes a generous offer for the land, Concord Theatricals summarizes. And questions of legacy and culture clash with economic concerns.

“’Kim’s Convenience’ is a story that resonates with my own experience as a first-generation Asian American,” says director Nelson Eusebio. “As the son of immigrants, this story feels like my own family.”

From New York City, Eusebio is associate artistic director at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and says he “fell in love with theater when I read David Henry Hwang’s ‘FOB’ when I was in college at UC-Irvine. It was the first time I felt seen when reading a play.”

The magic of “Kim’s Convenience” on Netflix was its representation of Asians in mainstream media, he says. “This show is about the Asian American (or Asian Canadian) immigrant experience.”

Actor Natalie Kim is of Korean descent and grew up in New York City. She and the Kims’ daughter Janet, she says, may share their Korean heritage, but “I do not share Janet’s filial piety to her parents, and that is because I am much more Westernized. Janet works at the store out of obligation, not because it brings her joy. She tries very hard to keep her family together and as a result is very much under her parents’ control.

“It is, however, a point of view. [While] I may view Janet being at the store as oppressive,” Kim muses, “she doesn’t even question working at the store; she does it because helping her family is a natural part of her life, even if she suffers because of it.

“Janet is at a crossroads in her life and does not know what she is missing from her life — but she longs for a big change.”

Karen Tsen Lee plays Umma, the matriarch of the family, and also shares the immigrant experience. She was born and raised in New York City of a first generation immigrant family from China and Taiwan.

“My family started a Chinese restaurant called the Flower Drum,” she explains. “As a way to ‘drum’ up business, we started performing during August Moon Festival and Chinese New Year. We were the performers, crew, master of ceremonies, and PR! Chinese dinner theater. On the off times, we were the not-so-glamorous coat check, cashier and hostess.

“Umma (mother) and Appa (father), like my real parents, came to Canada to build a new life,” Lee says. “This is the hardest thing, to move from a country with a different language, survive, and create a successful business. The dream [is] to build a life for not only the first generation but for the next.”

“The biggest challenge is making the audience see that these characters have the same struggles as any other family — disappointments, fighting, jealousy, familial relationships that are as complicated and as loving as their own,” concludes Eusebio. “The genius of Ins Choi’s work is that he’s giving you these deep life lessons delivered in humor. I hope that people walk away thinking, ‘Man, everybody’s got problems, but we can get through it with some grace and laughter — together.’”


‘Kim’s Convenience’

WHEN — 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 & 7:30 p.m. Saturday, through Feb. 19

WHERE — TheatreSquared in Fayetteville

COST — $20-$54

INFO — 777-7477 or

Categories: Theater