‘A Universal Story’: The Cast of ‘Kim’s Convenience’ on Bringing the Hit Play to Gwinnett’s Aurora Theatre
Since 1996, the Aurora Theatre in Gwinnett County has been offering family-favorite American musicals and its beloved annual Christmas Canteen holiday tradition for local theatre lovers who might not want to idle in their cars 30 minutes south on I-85 to see a show in Atlanta. So, the Aurora production of playwright Ins Choi’s “Kim’s Convenience” represents a ground-breaking departure for the Lawrenceville-based theatre company, featuring an Asian-Pacific Islander cast and Korean subtitles above the stage and English/Korean theatre programs.
In that program, Aurora co-founder Ann-Carol Pence credits theatre board member and Gwinnett County businesswoman Na Rae Cho for bringing the idea to stage “Kim’s Convenience” at the Aurora. Pence writes: “[Na Rae] wanted to invite a community she loves deeply to see ‘Kim’s Convenience.’ She requested posters and advertisements translated into Korean so that her business networks would be able to buy tickets. We translated our playbill. We hired a Korean speaking box office associate. Why? Because that’s what we do at the Aurora. We make a special place for our friends.”
That inclusivity is paying off nightly, as a more diverse audience fills the seats for the stage play (on which the popular Canadian TV sitcom turned Netflix pandemic comfort food is based). The show runs through Sunday, February 19 at the Aurora. This week, it was announced the play will continue its run in Atlanta March 3 to April 2 at the Horizon Theatre via a co-production between the Aurora and Horizon.
On a late Sunday afternoon after a long week of performances, actors Caroline Donica, who portrays daughter Janet Kim, Yingling Zhu, who plays family matriarch Umma and Ryan Vo, who plays estranged son Jung joined Eldredge ATL on a Zoom call to discuss their roles and the impact the show is having at the Aurora. All three actors are scheduled to return for the Atlanta run of the show at the Horizon March 3 to April 2.
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Eldredge ATL: Caroline, what motivated you to be a part of this show?
Caroline Donica: This show was really exciting for me because it was about an Asian family so getting to work with other API actors was big for me. I had never gotten to do a show with that many API actors. That was really exciting as was the story itself. It’s a story about an immigrant family but with human elements everyone can relate to.
Eldredge ATL: Yingling, I was surprised to learn this is your first non-singing role?
Yingling Zhu: It is! This is my non-musical play. I’ve been singing almost my entire life. I’m very grateful to be a part of this show. It’s such a great and touching story. A lot of the details in the story remind me of my childhood and my parents. It’s hard for Asian parents to express their emotions to their kids. I knew they loved me but they would never, ever, at least my mom and dad never said “I love you” to me. I used to never say that either but since I came to the U.S., I’ve changed. It’s such a natural thing to say here.
Eldredge ATL: Ryan, it would take less time for me to list the Atlanta stages I haven’t seen you performing on. What drew you to this play?
Ryan Vo: This is the second time in my entire artistic career that I get to help tell an Asian-based story. Whenever I come around a project like this, I gravitate toward it. It’s been a true pleasure doing this show. It hits parts of my own personal journey being a first-generation Asian-American and my parents being immigrants from the Vietnam War. As soon as a read the script, I told our artistic director Ann-Carol Pence, when the Aurora Theatre announced it in their season, this play instantly became the number one project I wanted to book in 2022-23.
Eldredge ATL: This is James Yi’s sixth or seventh production of “Kim’s Convenience” playing Appa. He’s said it’s his “King Lear.” Was it at all intimidating coming into a show where the lead actor had the role in his back pocket?
Yingling Zhu: He’s talked about that a few times. Every cast, every group, every theater is different. He said that every time he does the show, something new comes out.
Caroline Donica: It wasn’t super intimidating because James is such a warm and open person. He’s so nurturing, he helped with pronunciations and pointing out things he had discovered before. But he was also open as well. As we made our own discoveries in the characters and relationships, he was open to trying new things and exploring facets with our unique characters.
Eldredge ATL: We have to talk about this magnificent set by scenic designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay. It looks exactly like any small family-owned business in Gwinnett or on Buford Highway.
Caroline Donica: The Curley-Clays are amazing. That set is like a playground. It’s every actor’s dream to work on a set like that!
Eldredge ATL: You rehearsed on it and now your run is a month-long. Do you have go-to snacks and do you hide things on the set?
Caroline Donica: When Janet comes on in the beginning and she’s grabbing snacks, those were specifically placed on the set. Because the set is so detailed, we’re still discovering new things every time we’re on stage. One day I noticed on the backside of the counter there are these little Post-It notes up like Janet’s cell phone number or notes Appa would have put up there.
Yingling Zhu: There’s even a wedding photo with our heads Photoshopped on!
Eldredge ATL: Yingling and Ryan, one of the most pivotal moments in the show is your scene in the church. The character of Jung is in a very different place than he was portrayed in the popular TV series. In many regards, the play goes to a lot darker places. The stakes feel higher here.
Ryan Vo: I completely agree.
Yingling Zhu: The Netflix show feels very light. It’s a comedy. But the play goes to emotional, upsetting moments between Umma and her son. As a mother, she wants her family together and her favorite son is outside the family alone and the father and son hate each other. As a wife and mother, how can she be happy? I think that’s why she goes to church so often — to find some inner peace.
Eldredge ATL: Caroline, you and James share another of the play’s most powerful moments when, during an argument when Appa says, “I gave you my whole fucking life, Janet. What have you given me?” and raises a hand to hit his daughter. We also learn he once put his son Jung in the hospital. What’s that moment like to play and how did you rehearse that?
Caroline Donica: The funny part is the gesture with his hand didn’t come in until, I think, opening night.
Eldredge ATL: So you didn’t rehearse that?
Caroline Donica: No. Our director [Rebecca Wear] was like “I might like to see some fear from Janet…” because we know Appa has this temper so James added that in on opening night. I just remember thinking, “Oooh, that’s so juicy!” I thought it was great. I love it when actors do things like that. It gives you so much more to play with. You can’t do a scene like that without a level of trust. You have to know the other actor is there for you. When Appa sees the terror in Janet’s eyes in that moment, he has this huge sense of guilt and shame. He turns away from her because he’s remembering what he did to his son. You get to see the growth in Appa in that moment. He doesn’t strike his child. He pulls it back and realizes he’s in the wrong. It’s really nice to play in terms of storytelling and character arc. You get to see how far these characters have come. I love that scene because your body just reacts. Your heart rate’s up, your adrenaline is rushing. I’m always sweaty when I come off stage from that scene.
Eldredge ATL: One of the things I love most about this play is it brilliantly illustrates the sacrifices immigrant families make coming to a new country. We learn that in Korea, Appa was a teacher but in the United States his English wasn’t proficient enough to continue that career so they find this store and make it the family business as a way to make the future better for their children.
Ryan Vo: It’s a universal story. We’ve had South Indian audience members come in and say the show really touched their heart. I know personally for me, when my parents immigrated here to the United States there was a language barrier. My dad was a phenomenal carpenter and landscaper but without English being readily accessible to him you can’t take the test to get the license for it. So he opened a nail salon. This story does hit home in many ways to different cultural groups who have immigrated to the United States.
Eldredge ATL: When you get the Aurora Theatre program for this show, it’s in English and Korean. The show has Korean subtitles above the stage. This feels like a real attempt by the Aurora to diversify its audience base. Who are you seeing in the audience so far in the run?
Yingling Zhu: The first week I didn’t really go out to the lobby to say hi to the audiences but then Caroline said “We need to go out after the show to meet the audience.” So we started going out and meeting people. It’s been great.
Ryan Vo: The Korean audiences that have come and experienced the show have been so kind. Some of these elderly Korean couples who are coming, who are residents of Gwinnett County, this may or may not be their first theatrical experience in America. This is a terrific attempt by the Aurora to reach out to this community, this largely untapped community. Buford Highway is not that far away. There are so many people who want to experience art but don’t because there aren’t people on stage who look like them. It’s really powerful that the Aurora is making a true attempt at that.
Caroline Donica: I’ve found the audiences so far to be fairly diverse, especially given what the Aurora audiences usually are. I love how accessible they’ve made it and how they’ve marketed the show, really reaching out. The response to it has been amazing. Every night you see people in the audience wiping their eyes. People come up and say, “I’ve got to go call my dad!” One guy told me, “I’ve been such a bad Appa to my daughter. We have to sit down and have a talk!” By doing this show the Aurora is saying, “We see you, we want to celebrate you.” It’s really lovely. When you make someone feel seen, they will come back.
Eldredge ATL: Caroline and Ryan, Yingling holds 12 singing competition titles in China. She sings just a few bars in this show. Have you done a deep dive Googling her YouTube videos?
Ryan Vo: Are you kidding? You mean, the Yingling Zhu? I’ve definitely Googled her! (laughs).
Caroline Donica: We share a dressing room so I get my own private concert every day!
Yingling Zhu: (laughs) When we’re putting on make-up and getting our costumes and wigs ready, we put on music in the dressing room.
Caroline Donica: And it doesn’t matter what style of music comes on, she can sing it.
Yingling Zhu: We do harmonies together.
Eldredge ATL: Ryan, you and James share the very powerful final scene in this show. Watching it, it struck me that viewers of the TV series never got to see this ending, where these relationships end up. What’s going through your mind doing that scene every night?
Ryan Vo: I try not to end game it. [Director] Rebecca [Wear] said something really interesting in rehearsal that raised the stakes for me. She said when Jung comes into the store at end, there’s a real possibility he has a gun. There are different possibilities running through Jung’s mind. With a master actor like James, he’s always so present. I feel blessed to be acting with him in that final scene. The character arc is amazing. Some people go their whole lives without that sense of closure with their parents.
The Aurora Theatre at Lawrenceville Arts Center production of “Kim’s Convenience” by playwright Ins Choi and directed by Rebecca Wear, starring James Yi, Yingling Zhu, Caroline Donica, Ryan Vo and Lamar K. Cheston runs through Sunday, Feb. 19. Visit auroratheatre.com for tickets or more information. Atlantans can also catch the production when it’s relocated (right down to that amazing set) to the Horizon Theatre March 3 to April 2 with Daniel Kim taking over the lead role of Appa. Tickets and more info on the Horizon run can be found here.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.