Malthouse’s latest offering by its artist in residence, Ra Chapman, is a comedy about Lucy (Susanna Qian), who was adopted into an Australian family when she was four. Lucy finds herself back in her family home after being dumped and quitting her job, becoming increasingly attached to a now-empty cardboard box that used to hold her most treasured memories – before her parents threw them out.
She meets a K-Pop star, Kim Han (Jeffrey Liu), who is seeking respite from the fame that comes with the job – but instead of a fling, Lucy ends off discovering a long-lost link to her Korean roots instead.
Though K-Box was thoroughly enjoyable, nuanced, and incredibly well-acted, there are a few pieces of the story missing here. How did a famous K-Pop star end up in a small town in Australia? How did Lucy meet him, and what exactly is the story behind her break-up that left her so distraught? Unfortunately Chapman glosses over these important pieces of the puzzle – pieces the audience is left longing for, that would better flesh out Lucy’s character arc – in favour of over-laboured conversations that could have been edited down.
The first half of the play seems to be more so about Lucy’s parents – played with delight by Maude Davey and Syd Brisbane – who are the runaway stars of the beginning of the show. By centering the difficult conversations about race, inter-cultural adoption, and belonging on them, we miss out on Lucy’s narrative in favour of the voices that have traditionally dominated these conversations in the past. And though that may be the point, it’s a missed opportunity for deeper discussions.
Is it her own intergenerational trauma that has led Chapman to prioritise the secondary characters in the dialogue? She seems to realise this at a later point in her script, allowing Lucy to discover the realisation of her own hidden trauma. “I’m racist!” exclaims Lucy, discovering that what came with her adoption into a white family was the attitudes of the family themselves. Subtle use of sound effects – deep dread paired with machinations, almost like the cogs spinning within Lucy’s head – further emphasise the puzzle pieces falling into place within her tumultuous world.
Liu’s K-Pop star Kim Han is a conduit for this discovery, but also suffers from a reasonably glossed over character arc. There is a much-too-long K-Pop performance that acts as a metaphor for the space between worlds, which is a lot of fun, but also feels laboured. Han exists merely as a tool for Lucy’s awakening; and although Lucy acknowledges this in the script (as well), it’s a shame he never finds his full characterisation.
In fact, this is a theme of the show; rather than allowing the audience to decipher the plot tools for themselves, we’re fed a lot of the a-ha moments via obvious dialogue. Chapman’s message is a powerful one, expertly handled with an astute eye to exactly which lines to cross and why. It’s just a shame that the least fully fleshed out characters for the majority of the show are the Korean characters themselves.
The focus pivots later in the second half when Qian as Lucy delivers a series of powerful and emotional realisations that really make the show. Finally, the focus of the story shifts in line with Lucy taking back her own power (including a deft discussion about appropriation via use of some perfectly chosen costuming by Romanie Harper). It’s unfortunate that it feels a little late – I would have liked to have seen this shift happen earlier.
Despite this, K-Box is an extraordinary mainstage debut from Chapman – genuinely funny, expertly cringe-worthy, and damningly shining a light on Australia’s long history of defending good-natured people afflicted with “soft” racism. The performances here are absolutely spot on; a four-person cast that expertly dance around each other with conviction and a deep understanding of their characters, directed with a beautifully light touch by Bridget Balodis.
That there is also a bubbling sub-narrative that finds parallels in our darkest time in history – that of the Stolen Generation – is just another reason that K-Box, perhaps with a little subtle tweaking, could become one of the best new plays to emerge from Melbourne’s theatre scene.