White Pearl – Queensland Theatre

Can you be too white? That’s something one of the characters ponders in White Pearl, Anchuli Felicia King’s biting play set amongst the Asian cosmetics industry. It’s almost as if the character in question, Japanese woman Ruki (Mayu Iwasaki) feels it’s her fault that her skin is too white for it to have benefited from the bleaching agents in a beauty product aimed at Asian women.

That’s one of the numerous subjects covered in King’s work. A Thai-Australian, she got the idea for White Pearl in 2016 when ads for skin whitening products kept popping up on her newsfeed. They’d gone viral and been deemed ‘racist’ by many. As they were aimed at Asian markets, King asked herself questions about ideals of beauty, including in Thailand and the Philippines where she’d grown up.

The play is set in the building of Clearday Cosmetics in Singapore, where the proverbial is about to hit the fan after an online ad approved by someone in the female-only start-up company is judged to be highly offensive. And highly offensive it is, with the not-so-subtle message that having black skin is undesirable. But it’s not as, er, black and white as that. In one awkward scene, the South Korean character, chemist Soo-Jin (Deborah An) relays a few uncomfortable truths about some Asians’ attitudes towards ‘blackness’.

The subject matter is rife for controversy and offence, but the deft and sometimes raucous comedy of King, including intra-Asian racism, keeps the chuckles coming. The play has Clearday’s head honcho, the Indian-born, English-educated Priya (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash) acting superior because of her English language skills. She also regularly goads Soo-Jin for being raised in a totalitarian hell hole – this despite the latter’s protests that she’s South Korean and that it’s obviously a completely different country from North Korea! And there’s suspicion of the Chinese character Xiao (Lin Yin) who’s desperate not to return to China where her family connections have put her under surveillance.

Director Priscilla Jackman, in her Queensland Theatre debut, brings out confident performances from all the cast. The small ensemble is largely strong. Cheryl Ho mainly plays the aptly named Sunny for laughs as Priya’s young assistant. Nicole Milinkovic, as glamorous Thai-American heiress, Built, has her own blackmail subplot, involving her ex-boyfriend, a dodgy French guy named Marcel (Matthew Pearce). If the play has a weaker point it’s this, and it’s sometimes hard to understand what exactly is going on for the pair. When the subject returns to the ad backlash and who’s going to be fired because of it, it’s more successful. Suryaprakash, recently in ABC’s Wakefield, shines as the not entirely sympathetic boss who is under mounting pressure.

The set, courtesy of designer Jeremy Allen and lighting designer Damien Cooper, almost glows with whiteness. Elevated behind it is a large video screen showing cosmetic ads and social media comments about the offensive ad in question. Some of the comments that flash by in an instant are not for the faint-hearted but then again, social media isn’t either.

At 90 minutes without interval, White Pearl is brisk and compact. The Queensland Theatre production is playing at the Bille Brown Theatre until 10 July.

Vicki Englund

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