As someone with occasionally enough energy to care about his skin, I keep an eye out for products which have “brightening” qualities, as you learn to: these are often synonymous with bleaching. Skin-whitening isn’t solely an “Asian thing”, but it’s something you come across unavoidably in the beauty industry in Asian countries, sometimes hidden, sometimes openly acknowledged.
In White Pearl, Thai-Australian writer Anchuli Felicia King presents a company (CleardayTM) at the centre of a PR scandal. A hugely anti-black advert, meant to advertise one of their whitening creams, has been leaked and is taking the internet by storm. Led by Priya (Farzana Dua Elahe), the employees scramble to prevent this from reaching western media and land them in even more trouble, while trying to figure out, The Thick Of It-style, who should take the fall.
To get the obvious out of the way, it does feel pretty good seeing this cast of women representing characters from several countries across Asia. Besides Indian-Singaporean Priya, there’s Sunny (Katie Leung) her Chinese-Singaporean second-in-command, Japanese Ruki (Kanako Nakano), South Korean Soo-Jin (Minhee Yeo), mainlander Chinese Xiao (Momo Yeung) and Thai-American Built (Kae Alexander). Together, they make for a cacophonous and far from cohesive unit in meltdown, lurching from defending their actions and the advert to blind panic, blaming each other, plotting.
The cast largely have a riot with the script. It’s always illuminating to observe what people are laughing at; I and my half-white, half-Japanese friend are demolished by a YouTube commenter’s username ‘One BTS Army’ and Ruki and Xiao’s mistaken belief that the other must not like them because of their countries’ histories, while much of the audience still find a character nearly dropping an anti-black slur apparently hilarious. Some of Felicia’s jokes play a little broad – Priya’s purposeful assumption that Soo-Jin is North Korean is particularly tired, by this point.
Arty Froushan plays the only other character, a perfect “bastard Frenchman” type with very sharp scenes with Alexander’s Built. Everyone in White Pearl is awful, funny, and hugely racist, from slightly more latently racist to loud and proud. The anti-blackness is uncomfortable, as it should be, and yes, Felicia’s subject is really the battling, interlocking backgrounds and cultures of these Asians (that this is a “pan-Asian” business helps to emphasise that anti-blackness is endemic among most Asian cultures). I, at least, am left with that familiar feeling that like any other prejudice, anti-blackness seems only ever limitedly checked and interrogated without a presence given to that affected group. This far and no further.
Moi Tran’s design for this production is a pleasure. The Singaporean headquarters of CleardayTM are a pastel nightmare: like the National’s recent set for the Top Girls recruitment agency on speed. It’s all high ceiling, anonymous glass, plastic and bright lighting, a screen showing the CleardayTM logo or the video’s catastrophic racking up of views. Scenes in the bathroom (usually with Xiao bawling her eyes out) are slightly removed from everything else, a level above the main office space and set back. There’s a great sense of the space of this office, but as these bathroom moments are often the most engaging, they feel a little far away. Huge, projected YouTube comments rage across a clear screen. The costume design (by Lucy Walshaw) is so good that half of my notes are taken up just by wanting to mark it down: from Priya’s restrictive, big-shouldered red dress to Ruki’s more conservative long skirt and jumper, every character is immediately distinct and recognisable. Nicola Chang’s electropop interludes match the too-bright office beat for beat.
The production loses something of its dynamism in group scenes and the politicking of the employees against each other. Felicia presents these characters as stereotypes of their countries without interest in subverting them, which is to her purpose in this satire: Ruki is a naive, sweet Japanese woman and remains one. It’s not much of a satire on the antagonisms and common ground between different Asian identities; we’re just shown them.
But this adds to an unsatisfying, embarrassing ending; while other characters are humanised a little for us (we learn of Xiao’s family’s political imprisonment in China, for instance) we learn relatively little of depth about Sunny and Priya. The latter is shown to be a tyrant, treating her employees spitefully in a way meant to reflect her westernised education, language, and mindset. In retaliation, Xiao calls her a yáng gǒu – a dog of a foreign breed. The other women start sharing their words for white people, laughing at Priya. What unifies them is their recognition that Priya is acting like a white person, and they don’t like white people. At a loss, Priya asks “Why is that funny?” As one, the cast looks out to the audience as she asks it again, and the play ends.
Besides that this feels like one of SNL’s High School Theatre Show bits, why is Priya’s horrible behaviour positioned as worse, by ending on it and the others banding against her, than the incredible racism exhibited by some of the others? No-one is really likeable, as they’re all culpable – this is neither a victory, nor a rug-pulled-from-under-you-moment. Some people will recognise some of the words being used and feel included, while others will be shut out, like Priya, but what does that achieve?
It doesn’t feel as if this ending does anything, nor is the idea of Priya being “white” in her dickishness really convincing – she’s just a dick. Yes, it compounds the characters’ racism, classism, and the play’s westernised vs. homeland Asians dichotomy, but nothing ties together, and no point is made. It’s as if Felicia and director Nana Dakin are confronting us, with that heavy-handed line and fourth wall-breaking look, about laughing throughout when this play is sold as a dark comedy. It’s not much of a gotcha because of this. It isn’t much of anything.
White Pearl is on at Royal Court Theatre. More info and tickets here.