Clearday is the name of this clever young Singaporean cosmetics company, but there is nothing very clear about the way they do business. His product is called White Pearl, and as playwright Anchuli Felicia King’s ferociously crafty pamphlet indicates, it has a dangerous amount of skin in the Asian skin whitening game. And now it’s all about to be flayed when a company-produced TV commercial unofficially runs on social media and goes viral for all the wrong reasons.
The ad features a dark-skinned young Asian woman bleaching her complexion with the whitening cream after her boyfriend left her for a lighter-skinned rival. The cosmetic wizard works and the boyfriend returns to his true love while the rival desperately applies White Pearl in retaliation. Her face turns black and her hair frizzy because, the publicity warns, the potion only acts on “inner beauty”.
Online outrage at the racist implications of the ad is instantaneous and volcanic. The company is desperate to limit the damage and in no time, the young Asian women in the Clearday office discover the insurmountable differences in opinion and perspective they actually have on advertising. Some are horrified, others think it’s just a little fun. Their attempt to be a global pan-Asian enterprise has turned into tribal prejudice and contempt.
In director Priscilla Jackman’s fast-paced, brilliant, and provocative production, the multiple strands of King’s forensic satire are explored with an invigorating blend of witty comedy and uncomfortable frankness.
Delightfully lit in gelato tones by Damien Cooper, designer Jeremy Allen’s set is a minimalist desk with vertical glass mirrors, a long table, and brightly colored seating. On the ground floor is a toilet with two cabins for tearful escapes and other encounters. At the top is a screen for video projections (designed by the playwright) of the increasingly sordid torrent of online commentary and total views as they climb to seven digits. On one side is a series of horizontal neon lines, on the other a neon hand gives a victory signal. The effect is complemented by the enveloping sound design of Michael Toisuta and Me-Lee Hay.
The performances are excellent. King provided depth and detail to his characters that the director and cast use well. As Priya Singh, the founder of the Singaporean company, Kristy Best, dressed in chic pale linen, spans the range from the visionary of the benevolent CEO to the abusive and desperate bully as she plays cat and mouse. with the other women in his service. She’s both monstrous and comedic, and delivers some of the play’s most scathing lines when the united Asian facade crumbles and it’s all about bare-handed racial stereotypes. Cheryl Ho, as her hometown shrewdly obsequious associate, Sunny Lee, delivers her taunts in a mix of hip-hop twang and ironic Cantonese funny.
Deborah An and Lin Yin form an interesting alliance as Soo-Jin Park, the determined young South Korean chemist who concocted the White Pearl recipe, and Xiao Chen, the daughter of a top official from mainland China, now caught in a show trial in Beijing. These two consider themselves to be truly Asian – not like the “British and American schoolgirls” from Singapore or California.
Mayu Iwasaki is also memorable as Ruki Minami, the low-key and highly knowledgeable Japanese strategist who helps shape policy. The most westernized is Thai-American party girl, Built Suttikul (played brilliantly by Nicole Milinkovic), who takes the narrative in a different direction as she tries to push off her French stalker ex-boyfriend, Marcel (pictured with annoyance) relentless by Matthieu Pearce).
White pearl is courageous and accomplished work that deftly becomes entangled in the minefield of social media discourse, undoes culture and identity politics. It returns the excesses of the egoism of start-ups and reminds us that there is also a form of millennial toxicity. It revisits the shame and cruelty of the myth of beauty, and the predatory impulses of marketing. And alarmingly, it exposes the often vehement racism inherent in Asian nationalism and the lingering prejudices against African ethnicity.
Anchuli Felicia King acknowledges that her play covers a lot of ground. She describes it as “thematically overloaded” but adds that “basically it’s a play on nuance. And the danger of his absence. This is a much appreciated fix. Not only does she invite us to think with as much lucidity and courage as she does, but it is also a funny and often tumultuous experience.
A production of the Sydney Theater Company and the Riverside National Theater of Parramatta, White Pearl is performing at Dunstan Playhouse through October 23 as part of the 2021 OzAsia Festival.
Read more stories from OzAsia – including InReview’s festival picks – here.
Support local arts journalism
InReview is a revolutionary publication providing local and professional coverage of the arts in South Australia. Your tax-deductible donation will go directly to support this independent, not-for-profit journalism and art critic.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.