It’s just Jon Lawrence Rivera’s luck. Instead of enjoying a working vacation by the beach and directing a simple comedy, he’s stuck answering questions about politics, structural racism and America’s ongoing reckoning with race.
Not that his work as a director and founder of Playwrights Arena, a Los Angeles-based entity that is one of the biggest – and oldest – champions of new, adventurous plays by Los Angeles playwrights, disqualifies him from talking about those issues. It’s just what brought him to Orange County was the opportunity to direct a comedy, a very successful comedy, with a proven track record and built-in audience.
So when he was offered the gig of directing “Kim’s Convenience” at the Laguna Playhouse, you couldn’t blame Rivera for looking forward to not having to deal with the traffic and gentrification of his Hollywood neighborhood; he’d be kicking it on the coast during rehearsals in an apartment paid for by the theater. And instead of being on the ground floor of developing an intense play written by an intense playwright about an intense subject like race or sexuality, he’d be directing a comedy, a Canadian comedy, arguably the most successful Canadian play ever written.
From Comedy to Controversy
And how controversial could a Canadian comedy be?
Well, when it is the basis for a successful sitcom streamed on Netflix that self-destructed in 2021, that comedy can be very controversial.
It probably wouldn’t have been controversial if “Kim’s Convenience” had been produced as originally scheduled, in September 2020, as part of the Playhouse’s 100th anniversary season. At that time, the play was a 2011 piece written by Ins Choi about a Korean Canadian father’s attempt to preserve his family’s legacy by convincing his Westernized daughter to take over the family convenience store. It’s still that play; but while it hasn’t changed, the world around it has.
More specifically, in the wake of social justice protests in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, words like “diversity” and “inclusiveness” are no longer buzzwords that industries, particularly those of film and TV, can pay lip service to by saying how they are working toward them. Productions can’t just add a few actors of color to demonstrate that commitment. This new era of awareness has empowered performers of color to speak out against the structural inequities that aren’t about faces of color on screen as much as the lack of representation in writing rooms and executive offices.
And “Kim’s Convenience,” not the play but the TV series, found itself lodged squarely in the crosshairs of that issue.
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Success Does Not Equal Harmony
The television show, which first aired on a Canadian TV network in 2017 and went international in 2018 when Netflix began streaming it, was a huge viewer and critical success. The popular show won a slew of awards and was roundly praised, as a Time Magazine story in June 2021 put it, for “its portrayal of family dynamics and immigrant experiences and exploration of themes around race and identity.”
But behind the scenes, things weren’t so harmonious.
In March 2020, it was announced the show would be renewed for a fifth season in 2021 and a sixth in 2022, but a year later, a Twitter announcement stated the show’s fifth season would be its last due to the show’s two co-creators wanting to pursue other projects. At a time of rising anti-Asian violence in Canada and the U.S., the abrupt cancellation of a popular show featuring Asian Canadian characters seemed strange.
Cryptic social media posts from performers on the show intimated there were deeper reasons, and those soon became public. They included the lack of Asian, and female, writers and producers, the Korean American cast not being allowed creative input, and scripts that included cultural details that rang false or insensitive. All were cited as factors in the twin failures of the show: not presenting Asian characters who grew or evolved; and not using the success of the show to create more opportunities for artists of color behind the scenes.
What’s Laguna Beach Got to Do with It?
So how does that involve a play produced in Laguna Beach that was written six years before the TV series started airing? Two ways primarily. The first is more amusing and borne out by an anecdote Rivera shared.
“When my cousin heard that I was directing the play he said, ‘I can’t wait to see how the relationship between the father and son works out.’”
He’s also heard from others that they were looking forward to the play tying up some loose ends that the show’s abrupt cancellation never addressed.
But anyone looking for additional closure will be disappointed. If anything, the play set up the TV series and is focused far more on the father-daughter dynamic. The son and mother only appear in two scenes.
“It’s focused much more on the father’s journey and there’s a beautiful moment at the end where he realizes what his legacy is all about and I think that’s the big takeaway from the play,” Rivera said.
When: Through Oct. 9
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
Tickets: $56 to $81
Contact: 949-497-2787 or lagunaplayhouse.com
The other impact of the TV series’ controversy reflects a trend in American theater that was well on its way before the pandemic and protests, but which kicked into high gear after them: The commitment to making sure that the voices heard on American stages, and the faces seen on them better reflect all of America.
As evidence of that commitment, shortly after Rivera accepted the directing job, he learned the Laguna Playhouse was hiring a cultural consultant and dialect coach. (This production also has a majority Asian production team working on the show.) What impressed him wasn’t the additions to the team as much as a theater with an audience base that is overwhelmingly white would provide them without him asking.
“There has been a shift in American theater about how to work with culturally specific plays, ” he said. “And many theaters have been very intentional in selecting plays” that are more culturally specific. “We are living in a world where we have to pay attention, and be respectful and aware.”
Diversity Not New to This Director
But that’s old news to Rivera. He’s been championing work by diverse writers since he first launched Playwrights Arena during the Los Angeles riots of 1992.
He has built a sterling reputation as one of the foremost champions of new work by Los Angeles playwrights and rarely is there an analysis of Los Angeles theater’s future that mentions diversity without Rivera being a source or at least mentioned. There is a reason why Rivera was the first recipient of the lifetime achievement award from Stage Raw, the website founded by longtime LA Weekly theater editor Steven Leigh Morris.
Because the mission of Playwright’s Arena is, in part, to tell the stories of those who have historically been relegated to the margins of American society, including the theater. Many of the plays he has directed are far more political.
But even though “Kim’s Convenience” is a play that, as a New York Times review in 2017 suggested, is “sentimental, familiar and generically feel-good,” Rivera has in one important respect been working with this type of play his entire career, because he has been living it most of his life.
Rivera’s father was a journalist in the Philippines who ran a magazine critical of the country’s former president Ferdinand Marcos. When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, Rivera’s father moved to Australia and brought his family shortly after. Then, when Rivera was 15, the family moved again, this time to Los Angeles.
And over the course of his career, Rivera has been drawn to plays about immigrants and displacement, of “people trying to find a new place in a new world. “
“So, this was certainly in my wheelhouse,” he said of “Kim’s Convenience.” “I can certainly relate to being a new immigrant in a new city and country and adjusting to all that.”
But even in these days of heightened awareness about telling culturally specific stories authentically, and using members of that culture in telling them, it is how that story connects to people of all ethnicities, cultures and categories that makes it human, Rivera said.
“Even though it specifically looks at a Korean Canadian family it is a universal story in how (anyone can relate) to its generational conflicts and the battle between the new world and the old world,” he said.“So in a way, I’ve been working on plays like this for 30 years.”
Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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