Left – Mayu Iwasaki. Cover – Merlynn Tong and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash. Photos – Philip Erbacher
When an ambitious female-run cosmetics start-up, based in Singapore, discovers that their racially offensive television commercial which they attempted to bury has been leaked, trial by social media is just the beginning. What started as a ham-fisted ad campaign for a skin-whitening cream targeting the Asian market, became even more overtly racist under lax supervision by a distracted member of the company when it was filmed in China. The final advertisement’s racially charged imagery culminates in an appalling blackface “joke” that frames dark skin (and hip-hop culture) as the polar opposite of physical and inner beauty.
Although the other women running the company had enough sense to prevent the ad from airing, they are all horrified to discover that it has somehow been uploaded to YouTube. The social media reaction that unfolds becomes a shouting match of outraged condemnation, racist approval, deflection, amusement, calls for boycotts, and so forth, in an increasingly toxic discourse. Clearly, the maxim that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” no longer applies in 2019. There is panic in the offices as their online sales go into freefall. They try to have the video taken down, draft a public statement, point fingers, and ultimately work out whose head will be offered up as the one to roll when the company’s board comes baying for blood.
Spinning out of a fairly simple premise, there is a lot to unpack in White Pearl, an ambitious first play by Australian Anchuli Felica King, which is seeing almost concurrent productions in the UK, America, and locally. It in large part tackles the perhaps uncommon topic, to western audiences at least, of inter-Asian racism, and issues of racial prejudice more generally from an Asian perspective, other than simply being on the receiving end of white/European colonialism.
For example, in one scene the Chinese woman Xiao flatly assumes that her Japanese colleague Ruki doesn’t like her, simply due to their respective national origins. In another she bonds with Korean chemist Soo over their private mutual agreement that the racist ad mocking black people was, in their opinion, legitimately funny.
Perhaps the strongest scene in the play features Soo quite “rationally” advocating to her scandalised colleagues that they should not be overly concerned about damage to their business, arguing that only westerners will be offended by anti-black racism. She contends that their almost entirely Asian consumer base either won’t care, or will actually find the ad amusing. In arguing her case Soo repeatedly uses the word “negro” and is unmoved by the insistence of her boss that this term she was taught at university in Korea is no longer acceptable parlance. Indeed, she is barely prevented from blithely uttering then-word by way of an attempted semantic correction.
Although Soo may appear the most racist individual at first flush, all of the characters at one point or another demonstrate degrees of cultural bias, and are positioned along an imperfect moral spectrum. The play deals in many shades of grey, exploring the dividing line between racial insensitivity and overt bigotry, as well as the varying cultural norms across different Asian societies. Also questioned is the influence in many such countries of having predominantly mono-ethnic populations on how they perceive not only non-Asians, but also racial distinctions between each other.
These varying perspectives also underpin one of the other real-life issues that inspired this play, that a cosmetics industry which produces skin-bleaching products preys upon an inherent pan-Asian cultural value placed on lighter-skinned feminine beauty ideals. This self-evidently has some not inconsiderable racial implications. As one character in the play puts it: “Is there such a thing as too white?”
One of the great strengths of this play in tackling these thorny questions is the diversity of its roles, with a nearly all-female cast representing characters from Singapore, mainland China, South Korea, India, Japan, and Thailand (by way of America). The only European or male character of the play appears in a subplot, being a stalker who has pursued his ex all the way from France.
For a first play, the already prolific King is certainly not short on ambition, tackling not only the central question of racism from an underrepresented angle, but is also concerned with classism, misogyny, cultural specificity in a globalised marketplace, corporate culture, and the currency of outrage in the social media age. Not to mention the all too human question of, when the team screws up, whether to take personal responsibility or throw the weakest link under the bus.
Aside from the boldness and topicality of its subject matter, White Pearl is a very solid “well-made play”. For good or ill, it seems reminiscent of the early-‘noughties output of David Williamson. That is, in its seriocomic portrayal of affluent people dealing with a complication arising from a contested social issue, as they progressively reveal their varying levels of ethical compromise. Being described as “Williamsonian” could be viewed as either praise or a slight in theatrical circles, although King’s topics here are certainly more hot-button, and her use of a nigh-on entirely female and diversely Asian roles is undeniably more progressive. The razor wit that suffuses her robust dialogue more than holds its own, and her characterisations are impressive, considering the large cast and economical runtime. There are some shortcomings which one could nitpick, such as the structural oddity of a lone flashback scene. While serving well to elucidate how their interpersonal dynamics in the corporate environment have changed over time, from a plotting perspective it cuts away too quickly in showing how the disastrous marketing angle was first gestated. One feels that a second flashback might have been useful in clarifying how far down the tacitly racist path the original ad concept progressed in-house with broad consensus, before the fateful hand-off to production in China yielded such scandalous results.
Additionally, a few character moments don’t quite seem to track, such as a scene where several of the women start throwing around the word “feminazi.” For the same women who, not much earlier, had professed to being gobsmacked by the racist content of the commercial, to then be casually using a term now primarily associated with the Alt-Right, seemed out of place. Perhaps King was indirectly suggesting that in the first place no true feminist would work for a cosmetics industry that exploits and magnifies women’s societally-indoctrinated insecurities. The concept is detailed in one wonderfully uncomfortable scene, but if this was the intention of placing that dogwhistle word in these characters’ mouths, the message appears muddled.
Similarly, Priya, the British-accented Indian manager, makes a raft of denigrating anti-communist jibes, despite being corrected that Soo comes from South Korea, not the North, and even persists in doing so again later. Being the most Westernised character (other than the Thai-American Bulit) and seemingly the most openly outraged by the racism at issue, it was an odd turn for her. Perhaps this was intended to reveal that much of Priya’s liberalism was espoused rather than heartfelt, or designed to simply show her devolving into a schoolyard bully, but again, it seems awkward.
Priscilla Jackman does great work directing this propulsive character drama, maintaining its tension and humour in a delicate balance. Moreover, she has an embarrassment of riches with this exceptional cast. It is a true joy to see such an ensemble at work, with terrific representation and such impressive dramatic chops on display. The entire group does smashing work, but special plaudits go to Deborah An as the restrained Soo, Shirong Wu as the conversely distraught Xiao, and the equally ebullient Catherine Văn-Davies and Merlynn Tong as Built and the slang-spouting Sunny. These latter two respectively embody legitimate and appropriated degrees of swaggering Americanisation.
Although not without some teething problems, White Pearl is an impressive debut play blessed with a very tight production. Populated by strong and diverse women, it tackles some very thorny issues in a fresh and contemporary context. With several other plays in the production pipeline, Anchuli Felica King seems set to be a name to watch out for in the future.
National Theatre of Parramatta and Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Anchuli Felica King
Director Priscilla Jackman
Venue: Lennox Theatre | Riverside Parramatta NSW
Dates: 24 Oct – 9 Nov 2019
Tickets: $49 – $44
Bookings: 02 8839 3399 | https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/white-pearl/