Features Q&A and Interviews Published 13 May 2019

Anchuli Felicia King: “You have to recognise the shithole you’re in, in order to climb out.”

Playwright Anchuli Felicia King's grimly comic satire of the Singapore skin-lightening industry opens at the Royal Court this week. In this interview, she discusses Crazy Rich Asians, Mamet, and late-stage capitalism.
Ava Wong Davies

Anchuli Felicia King, photographed by Helen Murray

“It’s meticulous grotesquery.” Anchuli Felicia King laughs, describing her international playwriting debut. “I’ve always been really attracted to that, in all artforms.” White Pearl, her blackly comic satire set in the Singapore offices of the fictional cosmetic company, Clearday, actively and ironically relishes ugliness. The action of the play picks up a few hours after an appallingly racist advertisement for the company’s skin-lightening product goes viral, leaving its pan-Asian team to pick up the pieces and contain the scandal. It’s a riotous, brash script which feels a bit like a controlled explosion. King was inspired to write the play after a series of similar adverts went viral in 2016, in an effort to explore Asian intra-racial racism. It was the first time many people in the West had heard of the skin-lightening industry, despite it being so unbelievably, horrifically successful in Asia – but the anti-blackness and colourism which runs rife in Asian communities is an unsettling, scratchy topic, and one which the British East Asian community in particular continually skips over. Not King. Of Thai-Australian descent, but based in New York, she has an acutely, unsettlingly clear eye for the hypocrisies and double-standards within Asian communities. And for an early-career playwright, her voice already feels remarkably fully-formed – biting, rhythmic, and muscular.

Speaking to King in the Royal Court bar, I feel exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure. Our first interview goes on for an hour, both of us chattering at high speed, and when I accidentally delete the recording (let’s not talk about it), we pick up pretty much exactly where we left off a week later. She’s openly, refreshingly ambitious in her scope, telling me things like, “I think the notion of creating a kind of art that refers to the state of globalism and late-stage capitalism that we’ve found ourselves in is a really interesting. I’m interested in art that’s trying to find new ways of talking about our current historical condition” – in a way which reveals her proximity to the downtown New York playwriting scene. She cites David Henry Hwang and Young Jean Lee as influences on the ambitious scope of her writing, “particularly David – his work has always touched on communication, how we forge over cultural trenches. Those plays feel of the moment in a way that I don’t think many writers are. But formally I end up mirroring white male writers, because they write like monsters of capitalism really well.” She’s spoken openly about her love for David Mamet’s work in interviews, and when I ask her about it she grins a little. “Am I gonna say this? Yeah. I had been a Mamet acolyte, and watching the sad, sad decline of that man – completely out of touch with the world he exists in – it’s like, though the form remains robust, those writers haven’t adapted to the themes of the present. They got trapped in aligning their form and their content but could never evolve their content because they’re dinosaurs.” I can’t help but cackle at this.

And what about her “meticulous grotesquery”? Where does that arise from? “I love artists like Egon Schiele – baroque art where the subject is really grotesque but the form is really intricate and ornate. Even musicians like FKA twigs and Bjork, and playwrights like Philip Ridley and Sarah Kane. The way that they construct their worlds is really detailed, but also bombastic. Subtlety is like – who cares! It’s camp, it eschews subtle gestures in favour of ugly brushstrokes. And comedy works really well for that, because it can be brash and ugly.”

I suggest that, like comedy, grotesquery only really works when it’s put in front of an audience – that it needs that palpable energy, that buzz of an audience facing forwards and responding, in order to properly hit home. She nods. “Grotesquery, shock, and comedy are all inextricable for me, and at the core of why the dark underbelly of humanity is funny. People will laugh at the play in different ways because it means that inside the horror and shock, there’s something that’s truthful. These characters are behaving in insane, disgusting ways – maybe the best way to talk about it is capitalist realism – it’s about how capitalist conditions influence human behaviours. It’s about showing the conditions and the way humans act within them, so it might not feel like normal behaviour.”

The play itself takes on a broadly traditional structure – so what effect does that form have on the ugliness she is so interested in excavating? She ponders this. “It’s interesting to think of the in-yer-face places that came to the Court in the 90s – because a lot of them exist within naturalist forms, and then explode them – ” I interrupt her, excitedly. “But that explosion never feels otherworldly – it’s always got an internal logic to it.” She nods. “In White Pearl, it’s the shift from socialised hysteria to primal hysteria, and that’s the journey the play takes you on. And that’s like, really in-yer-face dramaturgy, right? That shift from social order to social chaos, within a conventional container.” She shakes her head and takes a sip of her tea. “Man, the set [designed by Moi Tran] is so motherfucking glossy.”

Reading the play, a concern that’s been tugging at me for a while finally poked its head into the open. How can a play which deals with overt racism and anti-blackness not reproduce those oppressions unnecessarily onstage? Particularly in a space as historically white as the Royal Court? King nods, gravely. “Who’s it for and who you’re educating are essential questions. The central question of the play is, ‘why is this funny?’, and it challenges the audience to ask why they find certain things funny, and who has permission to laugh at what, and when, and why. And there’s a process of acknowledging my own limited world view, and consulting with other communities to make sure we’re being cognisant of other views. We have a lot of East Asians on this production, so a lot of it has been bringing in other perspectives, like black audience members – it’s like, your voices and bodies aren’t literally represented onstage so how can we make sure that we’re taking care of you when you come to see the play? But I try not to think about it too much. I try to write for a young Asian woman, but I try not to overanalyse it because it would leave me down a path of didacticism which I’m not interested in.” I nod, still holding a few reservations. Laughter in the theatre can be amorphous and mutable, uncontrollable – one will never know how it will land until previews, and even then, not really. It’s the beauty of theatre, of live art, but also its danger. “It’s something that will be negotiated not just through rehearsals, but also through previews,” she replies. “I’m interested in writing difficult, ugly satire, but I’m not interested in making anyone feel excluded.”

So why Singapore as the setting for White Pearl? Why not the US, Australia, the UK – somewhere where whiteness is a more overt, encroaching force? “I’m interested in dealing with the intersection of a rapidly accelerating digital and global economy and how that interacts with the legacy of colonialism,” she replies. Setting White Pearl in Singapore, therefore, was a natural choice. “It’s a liminal space and it exists at a really interesting nexus in the global economy and culture. And it’s a former colony.” We begin to talk (read: complain) a little about Crazy Rich Asians, a film that’s held up as a win for South East and East Asian communities, but one which salivates uncritically over hyperactive consumerism and wealth. I ask her why she thinks it was so successful. “Singapore is a utopian version of Asianness,” she says. “For Asian communities in the West, it’s a different thing. There’s an immigrant fantasy of making it in the West which is tied up in success in capitalism, so I understand that making it as a second or third generation immigrant means economic success – I get why one would valorise late-stage capitalism. But in Asian countries, it’s interesting – particularly countries like South Korea, Thailand, India – they’re places that have eaten the Western capitalism thing and shat out this insane hyperactive version of it, where wealth inequality is so profound. Capitalism is seen to be empowering, and a mark that we’ve made it as a cultural force – which Crazy Rich Asians encapsulates.”

Does she consider herself an optimistic writer? I tell her I found the ending of White Pearl profoundly, desperately bleak. “Ooh.” She leans back in her seat. “This is a much deeper question – am I an optimist? I write really pessimistic plays, but they’re not pessimistic about human beings, they’re pessimistic about conditions. How can you be human in this insane world? But there are moments of connection and humanity, which aren’t supposed to give the audience hope, necessarily, but they give the sense that something different is possible. The millennial condition is like, being trapped by things that came before us, and that are happening around us of which we have very little control. We’re sadder at work than we’ve ever been – there are all these glossy sheens of corporate culture now which are like, ‘Equity! Ball pits! Ping pong tables!’ But that’s all surface, and it’s masking the fact that there’s less job security, people aren’t getting paid enough, and we’re being pitted against each other. Our generation feels the real disjunct between the glossy utopian surface and the reality of our daily lives. I think however that writers my age – there is hope in our plays. We are pessimistic, but that doesn’t preclude us from being activists. We’re more politically active than other generations because we believe in incremental change. And to some extent,” she smiles wryly, “It’s like – you have to recognise the shithole you’re in, in order to climb out.”

White Pearl is on at the Royal Court until 15th June. More info and tickets here.  

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Ava Wong Davies is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine