L.ucy Kowalski (Susanna Qian) has a mid-1930s crisis – she is depressed, just broke up with her boyfriend and quit her job. Arriving unannounced at her family farmhouse at midnight, her adoptive parents George (Syd Brisbane) and Shirley (Maude Davey) quickly realize that their daughter is not okay. It gets weird when she becomes firmly attached to a cardboard box that has nothing but scribbles that she swears were full of her favorite things, but her parents insist they’ve never seen before. This homecoming is a catalyst for breakup as Lucy questions everything she ever knew or thought she knew.
Directed by Bridget Balodis, K-BOX is the stage debut of Melbourne’s lead playwright Ra Chapman, who, like her protagonist, was adopted from Korea as a young child by white Australians. The play explores the tense politics of trans-racial adoption and the identity crisis experienced by those who feel “not quite”: not quite Aussies, not quite Asians, floating in this hazy space in between.
Much to her mother’s chagrin, Lucy spends her time at home in a depressive crisis doing nothing. The visit, however, is shocked by the arrival of Lucy’s new boyfriend Kim Han (Jeffrey Liu): a dreamy K-pop star who may or may not be a hyper-realistic figment of the Kowalski’s collective imagination. Liu’s extravagant performance is great fun, especially in scenes where the stage turns into a throbbing stadium where Kim can show off her glamorous chops, pyrotechnics and everything else. This irreverent absurdity brings to mind another play by Melburnian Michele Lee Going Down from 2018, which similarly broke stereotypes in a joyful, piercing way.
But it is thanks to Kim and his curious, inquisitive questions that the family’s fault lines are opened: isn’t it strange that George and Shirley celebrate Lucy’s “gotcha day” as if she were a rescue animal, wearing the hanbok – the traditional garb of the country they took her from? Isn’t it strange that Lucy doesn’t know where she’s from?
The show jumps between quick humor and tense family drama, highlighted by enchanting and intense performances. Lucy of Qiana is just as annoying and closer, with Brisbane and Davey playing a tense, bossy, bossy mom and a playful, playful dad with finesse, making the crowd roar at launch with their crazy gossip and jagged single lines known to anyone who has had or They were around, parents from the white boom.
Kim’s relationship with Lucy cleverly mirrors Lucy’s relationship with her parents, showing how she assimilated the microaggressions and exotifications that accompanied her throughout her life. Lucy is beginning to understand how her parents, loving as always, have failed and still do not understand the complexities of raising an Asian child in a white family and white world. George and Shirley cannot understand how Lucy, who has never wanted anything under their care, can struggle with a sense of loss. Despite the best of intentions, they never really saw her.
This gap is the basis of tension in the play – all three family members put on bold, emotional performances, struggling with what Lucy is traumatized for life, but new information for George and Shirley. Sometimes it’s a bit informative, like when Lucy yells at her mother about white privileges. But it is often so real that it is hard to watch, as when parents argue about who is less racist, revealing the ugliness they have long tried to conceal and making Lucy invisible again; or when Lucy and Kim’s relationship reaches a tipping point, when she throws racist slurs at him, which actually means herself. Chapman’s character development builds slowly through dialogue that uncovers thorny truths about each person, changing their relationships in unexpected ways.
The technical aspects of K-BOX raise the stakes of these more dramatic moments. The excellent soundtrack by Marco Cher-Gibard creates a tense and mystical atmosphere, enhancing the decoding of the more surreal parts of the performance. The beautiful, home-made Roma Harper set, surrounded by an arch of leaves, emphasizes the home environment; all the action takes place in the kitchen, at the dining room table, on the couch, in the yard, demonstrating the omnipresence and constant influence of the home on the life of the individual.
While its tonal shifts are sometimes abrupt and the pace is so fast it can feel dizzy, the great strength of the K-BOX is to develop the deep loneliness that its characters experience and express, all for a variety of reasons. The play begins with Lucy’s return to the restless family home and ends with her departure, once again changing her life and relationships. The question remains, how does the family move forward after long-hidden trauma is brought to the surface, changing everything. The box was never empty.