Ins Choi and Trey Anthony on the blessings and burdens of big hits

Choi has tried not to be defined by Kim's Convenience while ’Da Kink in My Hair was all part of Anthony's plan.



Picture this: a playwright pens their first full-length script. It gets produced, becomes a hit and gets turned into a TV series, transforming the writer into a big player on the Canadian arts scene.

“That never happens,” laughs Ins Choi. Except when it does.

This rare enough scenario continues to play out for two Toronto-based artists: Choi, author of the play Kim’s Convenience, returning to Soulpepper Theatre this week for the umpteenth (OK, sixth) time; and Trey Anthony, creator of ’Da Kink in My Hair, whose second play How Black Mothers Say I Love You has returned to Factory Theatre after a successful run there last year.

“It’s been an incredible ride,” says Choi, describing the trajectory of Kim’s Convenience from its premiere at the 2011 Toronto Fringe to today. Having just played in Halifax, the Soulpepper production will move on to Montreal and New York (having previously toured nationally in 2013-14), and there’s interest in staging the script in other English-language countries and in Korea.

Last September, Kim’s Convenience premiered on CBC-TV, adopting the play’s central premise: a Toronto convenience store serves as crucible for comedic/dramatic encounters between Korean immigrant parents and their Canadian-born son and daughter, and with their multicultural community. It was well received and has been picked up for a second season.

The film and production company Thunderbird and Soulpepper are co-producing the series, and Choi serves as its co-creator (with Kevin White) and a co-executive producer. This has prevented him from dropping to the low end of the creative pecking order, as often happens with writers in TV and film. “My experience has been genuinely collaborative,” he says. “I’ve always felt a lot of respect and my voice has always been heard.”

All that being said, Choi is concerned about being overly defined by this signal success. “As an artist it has been . . . I don’t know. It’s complicated. There’s a part of me that wants to not be associated with the show.”

Choi is working on a new concert of songs, stories and poems that he plans to perform in April, and the choice to do something different from the play is conscious: “Because Kim’s Convenience was such a success I am driven not to be afraid of failing — and not afraid to do something that’s not funny.”

For her part, Anthony underlines that ’Da Kink was part of a master plan from the start: to stay in control of her artistic output and to make good money from her work.

“I love the business of entertainment. I wanted to redefine how we as artists were walking through this world. I was not interested remotely in the poor starving artist thing.”

’Da Kink is set in a Caribbean hair salon in Toronto where eight female clients tell their stories through monologue, song, dance and drumming. Anthony self-produced the show’s premiere at the Toronto Fringe in 2001, pushing back against perceptions that “black people don’t come out to the theatre.”

“People didn’t come out because we didn’t see ourselves represented,” she says.

’Da Kink played a number of increasingly high-profile Toronto runs, including a 2005 stint at Mirvish’s 2,000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre. It toured to the States and the U.K. and, in 2007, was made into a TV series that aired on Global.

How Black Mothers continues Anthony’s exploration of black women’s lives; it focuses on the hard choices made by some mothers (including her own mother and grandmother) to leave their children behind when they emigrate. “I wanted to examine how women mother in less-than-ideal circumstances.”

How has her success affected Anthony? “I can be guilty of doing too much. I have made my career come before my relationships,” she says. “Now — credit where it’s due — I have an amazing co-producer, Carys Lewis, which is allowing me to concentrate on the creative side. I realized I was doing the job of six or seven people.”

Anthony and Lewis recently received development funding from Bell Media’s Harold Greenberg Fund to turn How Black Mothers . . . into a film.

Anthony continues to push for diversity in Canadian theatre and screen arts. “It’s gotten a lot better,” she says, since she was first shopping ’Da Kink around over 15 years ago, “and I was told it was too niche. But we still have to do a lot more about diversity in Canada, a lot better job than we’re doing.”

Choi agrees that film- and theatremakers of colour “are not in the club yet.” While he shies away from being positioned as a figurehead, he works to promote diversity by “leveraging my position to at least get an interview for actors of colour and women” on his projects.

In the end though, he feels it’s his work that best represents him: “I want to lead by doing and by creating things, rather than speeches.”