ACTRA honouree Jean Yoon reflects on her fight for onscreen diversity

By Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Jean Yoon is flush with honours these days.

In September, the Toronto-raised performer and playwright received a Birks Diamond Tribute award for her body of work. This past Tuesday, she landed her third Canadian Screen Award nomination for playing matriarch Umma on the hit CBC comedy series “Kim’s Convenience.” And on Saturday, she’ll be feted at the annual awards gala of the performers’ union ACTRA Toronto, receiving the Award of Excellence for her achievements and advocacy efforts.

To think, there was a time early in Yoon’s acting life when she’d quit the craft, after facing “dead ends” in open auditions where the casting directors “had no expectation of anybody of colour walking into the room, and they had no interest of casting anybody of colour,” she recalled in a recent interview.

“It got to the point where I thought, ‘I don’t really want to go through that humiliation on a regular basis, I’m going to ask up front,'” said Yoon, 57, who was born in Champaign, Ill., to parents of Korean descent. The family moved to Canada when Yoon was three when her dad landed a professor job at the University of Toronto.

“I’d call and set it up and then say, ‘Look, I’m Asian. If that’s problem, please let me know now, because I don’t want to waste my time or yours.’ And there was often this long silence where you knew that they didn’t know what the answer was, but really, the answer was ‘No,'” she said.

“And then if that pause was long enough, I’d be like, ‘OK, thank you. I don’t need to waste my time or yours’ and I’d just hang up. Sometimes the answer was, ‘Oh, my God, that’s no problem. Come! We just want to see you.’ But there were enough times where it was just awkward. In those days, there was really no point in getting an agent unless you were prepared to do stereotypical stuff in terms of screen work, and it was just like, ‘No, I’m not going to bother.’ It was very bad.”

The experience in the 1980s spurred Yoon to move to China for a while to teach English and focus on writing.

But when Yoon returned to Toronto, she was drawn back to the theatre — and to cultural equity advocacy work, to help others avoid the same kinds of frustrations she felt at the start of her career.

Yoon has since worked tirelessly on that front.

She’s developed and produced new plays to foster fresh voices as co-artistic director of Cahoots Theatre Projects; created programming and resources as cross cultural co-ordinator for Theatre Ontario; and been on a Canada Council for the Arts committee on racial equality — among may other endeavours.

“It’s incredibly important that when we tell stories about ourselves, we ensure that everybody’s story gets told,” said Yoon, whose playwriting credits include the Dora-nominated stage play “The Yoko Ono Project.” 

“As an Asian-Canadian, growing up with so few representations of myself, to put myself as a child into some kind of context was really difficult. And it messes you up. It’s really important for our society that equality is also measured in terms of participation in our cultural discourse. And that’s really what representation is about — it’s an ongoing, organic dialogue. And it can’t just be one group of people talking to themselves, if we are to function as a democracy, because we actually have to understand each other.

Yoon said she started noticing a change when it came to more representation onscreen in Canada in the ’90s. That’s when she started getting more film and TV work, leading to the long list of credits she has today.

“Kim’s Convenience,” of course, has made her a household name. Yoon was a part of the original 2011 “Kim’s Convenience” stage production by Ins Choi that became a hit and sparked the TV adaptation.

Series co-star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (a.k.a. patriarch Appa) was also part of the original stage story, about a Korean-Canadian family and their convenience store in Toronto.

“I love Umma so much,” Yoon said. “I have never had a chance to play a character with as many stories and with as many colours, and with real relationships.”

The hard work of onscreen cultural advocacy isn’t done yet — “There are so many so many stories to tell,” Yoon said — but she is now able to focus more on herself. 

Where she once felt like a Jenga tower “with about five turns left” before it would topple, she’s now “filling the well again,” she said, noting she’s started tap-dance classes and joined a choir.

“At some point along the way, I realized that part of the challenge was actually just to keep standing. So I’m just grateful that I’m still here,” Yoon said. 

“But what a year I’ve had. I’m really grateful that this recognition has come at a time where my parents can see it — they’re 89 and still quite hale and hearty — because I’ve been going on my way struggling, hand to mouth at times. And all that time my parents were just biting their nails with worry: ‘What’s going to happen? Is Jean going to be OK?’ And also, like, ‘You know, maybe not too late for law.’

“So I’m just grateful that they’re seeing it, because I feel like their relief, really that’s the prize — is seeing my parents lifted by the knowledge that I am doing OK.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2020.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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