Lucy Kowalski (Susanna Qian) is in the thick of a mid-30s crisis – she’s depressed, having 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 realise their daughter is not OK. It becomes bizarre when she forms a fierce attachment to a cardboard box with nothing but a scribble on the inside that she swears used to be full of her favourite things, but her parents insist they’ve never seen before. This homecoming is the catalyst for an unraveling, as Lucy questions all she’s ever known, or thought she knew.
Directed by Bridget Balodis, K-BOX is the mainstage debut by Melbourne playwright Ra Chapman who, like her protagonist, was adopted from Korea as a toddler by white Australians. The play explores the fraught politics of transracial adoption and the crisis of identity experienced by those who feel “not quite”: not quite Australian, not quite Asian, floating in that nebulous space between.
Much to her mother’s chagrin, Lucy spends her time at home in a depressive slump, not doing much of anything. But the visit is shaken up by the arrival of Lucy’s new boyfriend, Kim Han (Jeffrey Liu): a dreamy K-pop star who may or may not be a hyperreal figment of the Kowalskis’ collective imagination. Liu’s flamboyant performance is a lot of fun, especially in the scenes where the stage is transformed into a pulsing stadium for Kim to show his flashy performance chops, pyrotechnics and all. This irreverent absurdism brings to mind fellow Melburnian Michele Lee’s 2018 play Going Down, which similarly skewered stereotypes in a gleeful, incisive way.
But it’s through Kim and his curious, probing questions that the fault lines of the family unit are cracked open: isn’t it strange that George and Shirley celebrate Lucy’s “gotcha day”, like she’s a rescue animal, by wearing hanbok – the traditional dress of the country from which they took her? Isn’t it odd that Lucy knows nothing about where she’s from?
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The play flits between rapid-fire humour and tense family drama, underscored by performances both charming and intense. Qian’s Lucy is equal parts infuriating and relatable, and Brisbane and Davey play the uptight, overbearing mum and jokey, fun dad with finesse, drawing roars from the crowd on opening night with their inane gossip and daggy one-liners familiar to anyone who’s had, or been around, white boomer parents.
Kim’s relationship with Lucy cleverly mirrors Lucy’s relationship with her parents, showing the ways in which she’s internalised the microaggressions and exotification that have followed her throughout her life. Lucy comes to understand how her parents, loving as they’ve always been, failed, and continue to fail to comprehend the complexities of raising an Asian child in a white family and a white world. George and Shirley can’t grasp how Lucy, who’s never wanted for anything under their care, could be grappling with a sense of loss. Despite their best intentions, they’ve never truly seen her.
This chasm is the basis of the play’s tension – all three family members give brave, emotional performances as they wrestle with what is lifelong trauma surfacing for Lucy, but new information to George and Shirley. At times it’s a little didactic, as when Lucy yells at her mother about white privilege. But it’s often so real that it’s difficult to watch, as when the parents argue with one another about who’s less racist, revealing an ugliness they’ve long tried to conceal and again rendering Lucy invisible; or when Lucy and Kim’s relationship hits its breaking point as she hurls racial slurs at him, which is to really say at herself. Chapman’s character development builds slowly through dialogue which uncovers thorny truths about each individual, shifting their relationships in unexpected ways.
The technical aspects of K-BOX lift the stakes of these more dramatic moments. The excellent sound design by Marco Cher-Gibard creates a tense and mystical atmosphere, adding to the discombobulation of the more surreal parts of the show. Romanie Harper’s beautiful, homely set, framed by an arch of leaves, highlights the domestic setting; all the action takes place in the kitchen, at the dining table, on the couch, in the back yard, demonstrating the omnipresence and ongoing influence of home on an individual’s life.
While its tonal shifts are sometimes abrupt and the pacing is so rapid that it can feel dizzying, K-BOX’s great strength is in unfurling the profound loneliness experienced and expressed by its characters, all for different reasons. The play starts with Lucy returning to her family home ill at ease, and ends with her leaving, having upended her life and relationships once again. The question lingers of how a family carries on after long-buried trauma has been brought to the surface, changing everything. The box was never empty.
K-Box is playing at Malthouse theatre until 18 September