In the program notes to White Pearl, playwright Anchuli Felicia King claims that the main theme of her play is the absence of nuance. There is nothing subtle about her stinging acerbic satire on the cosmetic industry, corporate politics, racial tension and sexual power. Inspired by the skin whitening phenomenon in Asia, King's play is set in the Singapore office of successful skin whitening company Clearday Cosmetics whose product White Pearl enjoys considerable success in the highly competitive cosmetic market.
Founder Priya Singh (Manali Datar) runs the office with an iron fist. Her female staff, including her assistant manager Sunny Lee (Melissa Gan) have been recruited from across Asia - China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand.
Business is booming and Clearday Cosmetics is enjoying popularity and profit until disaster strikes. A video released by Xiao Chen (Shirong Wu) is leaked and goes viral. It depicts a woman applying White Pearl which turns her face black and her hair Afro. The hits run into the millions and flash up on Jeremy Allen's ultra modern set design, accompanied by hateful and offensive racial slurs. Numbers spin into overdrive and on stage the office turns into a rollercoaster of unstoppable chaos.
Irony blackens King's brittle comedy as the unanimity of pan Asian harmony is fractured by blame, suspicion and mistrust. Attempts by Ruki Minami (Kaori Maeda-Judge) do little to appease the flaring tensions. All is fair in the corporate dog-eat-dog war as Built Suttikil (Nicole Miinlkovic) plays a sexual cat and mouse power game with suspect ex-lover Marcel Benoit (Stephen Marsden) and MA in Biochemistry Soo-Jin Park (Deborah An) deals her trump card in a desperate bid to save her job.
Director Priscilla Jackman keeps the action hurtling along, spitfiring King's dialogue and catapulting the characters into chaotic confusion and recrimination. The cast lend the play and the performance a powerful authenticity, ironically depicting the artificiality of their circumstance. The sheer pace of Jackman's direction at times made it difficult to understand the accents. The fiery energy of the office scenes struck a contrasting chord with the more sombre and moving scenes in the toilet cubicles between dejected Xiao and friends Soo Jin and Ruki. Sex and money serve as the agents of power and dominance in the cubicle scene with Frenchman Marcel and the wily Built. The struggle for survival lies at the heart of the play's action and attitude.
White Pearl is a high-octane condemnation of manipulative persuasion. Halfway through the performance, King has written a flashback scene that depicts the innocence and idealism of the start-up company. Ruki's conversion to marketing manipulation of language and image forecasts the dangers inherent in an industry founded on exploitation of a woman's preoccupation with body image.
This is also a timely and welcome example of the changing face of Australian playwriting. Writers like Anchuli Felicia King, Nakkiah Lui and Meyne Wyatt are defining culture in their own image and reminding us that we are indeed a nation of many diverse races and cultures. King's satire, bristling with comedy and full force performances, offers a nuanced warning to avoid the pitfalls of exploited identity.
The Sydney Theatre Company production of King's award-winning play allows us to see the world through different eyes and realise that however different we may be, we are also very much the same.
White Pearl is a gem that yields a richer and deeper understanding of our common humanity.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.