Versatile Service

Reviewed by Sylvie Vranckx

Both Tomson Highway’s and Ins Choi’s new plays focus on the everyday lives of popular characters as seen through the lens of the service industry and celebrated with a humour based on incongruity and the cadences of ordinary language. While The (Post)mistressfollows Marie-Louise Painchaud, the eponymous postmistress, Kim’s Convenience focuses on a family-run Korean Canadian convenience store in Toronto.

The (Post) Mistress marks a new collaboration between Highway and Peruvian-Canadian singer Patricia Cano through the form of the one-woman musical. The romantic and emotional Marie-Louise (played by Cano), a postal services employee with a celestial laugh and an uncanny ability to “divine” letters and an inability to keep secrets, presents a multifaceted account of the love and sex lives of the citizens of a town called Lovely in Northern Ontario.. Marie-Louise’s gossip and tendency to laugh at her own jokes are presented as sassy, impish, and charming, and as evidence of her fun-loving temperament. She presents her mid-1980s Franco-Ontarian town as a crossroads of cultures and worlds. Marie-Louise has Cree ancestry but is one of the Queen of England’s employees, as shown by the decades-old stamps picturing Elizabeth II in the print version. Moreover, her late first husband was Anglo-Protestant. Her Métis friend Sylvie Labranche has an affair with a “linguini” from Brazil who writes to her in Cree, thereby hinting at academic culture.. Yvette Paquette “with her big hair” has dated an African-American man from New Orleans nicknamed after a cigarette brand..A little girl has a dream about becoming the Little Bear (French Little Dipper), which alludes to mythology and the animal realm. As a Catholic, Marie-Louise nonetheless reluctantly accepts the homosexual relationship between Daniel and Guy. Finally, she envies another woman’s love story in Argentina and wishes to become a Latino man’s (post)mistress. The choice to set the play in Francophone Canada is reminiscent of one of Highway’s main inspirations, Michel Tremblay’sLes belles-soeurs. The libretto is trilingual: in English, (glossed) French, and (glossed) Cree with some words of Spanish. Cree is compared to Brazilian Portuguese as one of the world’s sexiest languages. Accordingly, the songs involve a Cree mourning prayer, samba, bossa nova, tango, French café chanson, and Berlin cabaret rap. However, the self-aware exoticism of the play and the colourfulness of its characters (reminiscent of those from The Rez Sisters) should not make one forget its dark overtones as a tragicomedy: separation, death, and abuse are omnipresent and Lovely is always one letter away from “lonely.”

Unlike Highway, Choi is a brand new voice in Canadian theatre. His debut play earned him the Best New Play award from the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2010. Set in today’s world, Kim’s Convenience is less complex and more realistic than Highway’s modernism-inflected(Post)mistress, but is by no means simplistic. The artistic director Albert Schultz points out in the foreword that the play is “a major cultural event,” one which celebrates Canada’s relatively new Korean communities and even newer Asian-Canadian theatre The play is presented by the author as a love letter to his parents. This comedy mainly revolves around the character of Appa, Mr. Kim, a jerk with a heart of gold who is obsessed with illegally parked Japanese cars for historical reasons, who tries to pressure his photographer daughter Janet into marrying and into taking over his store, and who has not seen his son Jung for sixteen years after they had a violent altercation. Most of the humour is derived from his quirky, childish stubbornness and poor command of the English language (try saying “Two popo [kisses], too many popo” without laughing). He is also celebrated for the sacrifices he made when he came to Canada and the energy he pours into his store. The play is also concerned with the relationships between the Korean Canadian and African Canadian communities; a Black enterpreneur offers to buy the store which leads to a turning point in the Kims’ lives as Janet is reunited with her Black childhood crush Alex (now a police officer), and Appa is convinced that a Black man in a jean jacket is shop-lifting and manhandles him. The play also focuses on the church, the risk to the convenience store from Big Business, and the small rituals involving everyday corporate products, such as drinking the sweetened milk of one’s Frosted Flakes. Choi’s play also has more character development than Highway’s, leading to a very satisfying though somewhat conservative finale.

All in all, both plays feature endearing, memorable characters and focus on métissage and love. Despite their different forms, they are both concerned with the everyday or mundane, and they offer compelling insights into what it means to be Canadian in today’s multicultural society and into the varied possibilities of Canadian theatre.

This review “Versatile Service” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 139-41.

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