Lucy Kowalski (Susanna Qian) is in the midst of a midlife crisis – she is depressed, has just broken up with her boyfriend and quit her job. Arriving unannounced at her rural family home at midnight, her adoptive parents George (Syd Brisbane) and Shirley (Maude Davey) quickly realize that their daughter is not well. It gets weird when she forms a fierce attachment to a cardboard box with nothing but a squiggle inside that she swears is full of her favorite things, but her parents insist they don’t. have never seen before. This homecoming is the catalyst for a denouement, as Lucy questions everything she ever knew or thought she knew.
Directed by Bridget Balodis, K-BOX is the feature debut of Melbourne playwright Ra Chapman who, like its protagonist, was adopted from Korea as a toddler by white Australians. The play explores the tense politics of transracial adoption and the identity crisis experienced by those who feel ‘not quite’: not quite Australian, not quite Asian, floating in that nebulous space between of them.
Much to her mother’s chagrin, Lucy spends her time at home in a depressive slump, not doing much. But the visit is disrupted by the arrival of Lucy’s new boyfriend, Kim Han (Jeffrey Liu): a dreamy K-pop star who may or may not be a hyperrealistic figment of the Kowalskis’ collective imagination. Liu’s flamboyant performance is a lot of fun, especially in the scenes where the stage turns into a thrilling stadium for Kim to show off her flashy performances, pyrotechnics and all. This irreverent absurdism is reminiscent of fellow Melburnian Michele Lee’s 2018 play Going Down, which also skewered stereotypes in a cheerful and incisive way.
But it’s thanks to Kim and her probing, probing questions that the fault lines of the family unit are opened: Isn’t it strange that George and Shirley celebrate Lucy’s “catch-up day,” as if she was a rescue animal, wearing the hanbok – the traditional dress of the country they took her from? Isn’t it strange that Lucy doesn’t know where she comes from?
The play oscillates between quick humor and tense family drama, underscored by performances that are both charming and intense. Qian’s Lucy is both infuriating and relatable, and Brisbane and Davey play the tense, overbearing mother and jokey, the amusing father with finesse, drawing roars from the crowd on opening night with their insane gossip and daggy one-liners familiar to anyone who has had, or been around, white boomer parents.
Kim’s relationship with Lucy cleverly mirrors Lucy’s relationship with her parents, showing how she internalized the microaggressions and exotification that followed her throughout her life. Lucy comes to understand how her parents, loving as they always have been, failed and continue to fail to understand the complexities of raising an Asian child in a white family and a white world. George and Shirley don’t understand how Lucy, who never lacked for anything under their care, could be struggling with a sense of loss. Despite their best intentions, they never actually saw her.
This chasm is the basis of the play’s tension – all three family members give brave and emotional performances as they grapple with what is lifelong trauma that surfaces for Lucy, but new information for George. and Shirley. Sometimes it’s a bit didactic, like when Lucy yells at her mother about white privilege. But it’s often so real it’s hard to watch, like when the parents argue over who’s less racist, revealing an ugliness they’ve long tried to hide and making Lucy invisible again; or when Lucy and Kim’s relationship reaches breaking point as she hurls racial slurs at her, that is, herself. Chapman’s character development builds slowly through dialogue that reveals thorny truths about each individual, altering their relationships in unexpected ways.
The technical aspects of K-BOX raise the stakes of these more dramatic moments. Marco Cher-Gibard’s excellent sound design creates a tense and mystical atmosphere, adding to the scenery of the most surreal parts of the show. The beautiful warm ensemble of Romania Harper, framed by an arch of leaves, enhances the domestic setting; all the action takes place in the kitchen, at the dining table, on the couch, in the backyard, demonstrating the ubiquity and continuing influence of home on an individual’s life.
While its tonal shifts are sometimes abrupt and the pace is so fast it can seem dizzying, K-BOX’s great strength is in unfolding the deep loneliness experienced and expressed by its characters, all for different reasons. The play begins with Lucy returning to her family home, uneasy, and ends with her leaving, having once again turned her life and relationships upside down. The question persists of how a family carries on after a long-buried trauma is brought to the surface, changing everything. The box was never empty.