Ask and answer. A simple game where the only rule is that both parties tell the truth. But it’s also the hardest game I can imagine. Who decides what the truth is, the person who asks or the person who answers? And to what extent can one be comfortable revealing the unpleasant truth about oneself when difficult questions are asked?
In Kitchen Theatre’s The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up, Diana (Shannon Tyo) and Max (Cory Censoprano) play the game from the age of eight to 38. Through a series of questions and answers, we catch glimpses of their intertwined lives. The kids meet on the day their parents start having an affair, and over the years have seen them break up, get back together, get married and break up again. Diana and Max’s narrative mirror their parents in a way; they’ve been best friends, lovers and family, and even at the end of the play, the two are still trying to figure out how they best fit together.
The first thing I noticed when I entered the theater is the stacks of cardboard boxes populating the stage. It reminded me of all the packing and unpacking I’ve had to do growing up. My family moved around quite a bit when I was a kid, and I never liked the feeling of being uprooted and relocated. The idea that a few fragile cardboard boxes can hold someone’s entire life is cold, even terrifying. In scenic designer Afsoon Pajoufar’s masterful vision, the boxes become a symbolic gesture of one’s messy past; apologies that should’ve been delivered, relationships that didn’t work out, bad habits, lies and regrets. Yet as director Meg Taintor notes in the program, “The play thrives in mess; it reminds us that mess is important — that making messes and sorting through them afterwards are what make us the people we are.” After each scene, the light dims, but the actors stay on stage to pull out costumes and props from the dizzying array of boxes; and with pieces from the past, they change into their future selves.
One line that makes me particularly emotional is from Max: “We damage each other.” This story is about damage, but also about healing. In many ways, it reminds me of one of my favorite plays, Gruesome Playground Injuries written by Rajiv Joseph, in which two people that meet at the nurse’s office as kids are repeatedly brought back together by their wounds, heartbreaks and self-destructive tendencies. In Two Kids, while Max seems more like the broken one on the surface level (with his obsession with “blowing things up” and gambling habits), Diana reveals her vulnerabilities slowly but surely. When she calls Max in the midst of going through her late father’s belongings, her voice breaks, but just a little. She takes a deep breath, and speaks into the phone matter-of-factly, “I don’t have anyone else to call.” Then, in a quick series of turnarounds, we learn that they haven’t talked for four years after a major fight at Diana’s second wedding. More accurately, he walks away and never replies to her calls and texts. When he finally shows up again, she asks if he can promise not to leave again. He says he can’t promise anything. “Well — can you at least try?” That’s when the play ends. Without Max’s answer. Not exactly a happy note, but a hopeful one. Perhaps one doesn’t need an answer anymore if they can feel comfortable enough to ask the question they never dared to ask.
I’ve previously seen Tyo at the Kitchen as Vicky in Bright Half Life and Ginny in Smart People, and I somehow find myself relating to her in these vastly different characters. She has this warm charisma and native wit that draws you close, and often before you notice you already care so much about her character that you’d want to laugh and cry with her.
Playwright Carla Ching shares that “writing a play with two Asian-American people is a political act. I do this with intention.” Diana and Max can’t be played by white people not just because they go to Chinese school or eat noodles in the play; the way they interact with each other and the world is informed by their identity, ranging from the tiniest details like Diana’s attempt at art, to how they deal with death and grief. But this is also more than an “Asian story”; it is a universal story about our shared humanity, only these two humans happen to be Asian.
When I walked out of the theater the storm had just stopped, and this tiny puddle on the side of the pavement caught my eye; in the muddy mess, the reflection of a street lamp shone brightly through.
Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].