Thursday, April 28, 2022

White Pearl


White Pearl by Anchuli Felicia King. A Sydney Theatre Company and
Riverside’s National Theatre Of Parramatta production at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, April 27-30, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 27

Director - Priscilla Jackman; Designer - Jeremy Allen
Lighting Designer - Damien Cooper
Composer & Sound Designer - Michael Toisuta
Composer & Associate Sound Designer - Me-Lee Hay
Projection Designer - Anchuli Felicia King
Dramaturg - Courtney Stewart
Voice & Text Coach - Leith McPherson

Soo-Jin Park - Deborah An
Priya Singh - Manali Datar
Sunny Lee - Melissa Gan
Marcel Benoit - Stephen Madsen
Ruki Minami - Kaori Maeda-Judge
Built Suttikul - Nicole Milinkovic
Xiao Chen - Shirong Wu
Understudy - Jenny Wu

Photos - Philip Erbacher

I’m glad I don’t live in the modern world.  

The idea that everyone should only converse in one-line assertions makes Twitter an abomination.  But there you go – I’ve just done it myself.

It’s the million comments of this kind about the White Pearl company’s attempt at a humorous television advertisement for its facial skin whitener, aimed at Asian women, which form the focus in this play.  It became literally black humour when it went wrong – as a joke in the ad – and the woman’s face turned black instead of white.  In the ad she is suitably horrified.  After all, who would ever want a black face?  Eh?

There is only one man in this play – very French, of course, with a commercial interest in face make-up and aromatic products – and others for a few other unmentionable parts of the body: his body.  He leaked the ad video on Twitter with no regard for copyright law – just for fun.

All the other roles are the women high-flyin’ team who have made White Pearl a global sensation.  This is despite realising, when a newcomer starts to think about why selling White Pearl cream works universally, that women hate the way they look but are afraid to admit it.  So the Singapore company calls itself Clearday Cosmetics so women don’t have to admit to themselves that they really want to be white.  Only the Pearl is White – as a pearl should be.

The dark side of this theme is cleverly kept in the dark by turning the scenes of this over-the-top competitive group of creative money-makers into a kind of edgy satire of this world in which, I’m glad to say again, I don’t live.  The humour is blacker by dint of the fact that these are all go-getting women, rather than the more usual patriarchal men, who naturally deserve to be satirised.

The set is literally high-powered in audio and visuals – I had to take one hearing aid off  completely – as the million hits and many of the vicious Twitters flashed up between scenes, and numbers explosively clicked up and up.  I think they reached 400 million as the whole cast fell apart mentally and socially, as profit-taking defeated feminism.  We were still laughing at the final blackout.

On the serious side, on reflection, White Pearl raises real issues about the status of women, including among themselves in the workplace; about the overbearing nature of male sleazy sexual demands; about the commercial need to cover up the dangers of popular products (in parallel, I thought, with the tobacco industry: in this case the  dangerous chemicals are over-used to make darker-coloured skin go white); and racism – in this case between different Asian cultures, including skin colour as well as attitudes based on nationality. 

For comparison, I was reminded of Nakkiah Lui’s play Black is the New White (reviewed on this blog in March 2018), though her humour is far gentler, more generous in tone.  I could live in Nakkiah Lui’s world, if a little uncomfortably as I must face critical questioning.  But I really don’t have a place in Anchuli Felicia King’s world.  See what you think for yourself.

Clearday Cosmetics' 'modern' office at work in Singapore
The cast of White Pearl, excluding the man,
Sydney Theatre Co / Riverside production