Anchuli Felicia King // Photo: Benita de Wit

Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl Explores Intra-Asian Racism

2019 has been a big year for playwright Anchuli Felicia King. The 25-year-old Thai-Australian will make her professional playwrighting debut not once, not twice, but three times this year with White Pearl. The corporate satire about the beauty industry is premiering in England and Australia before making its American debut at Studio Theatre this November.

To launch a professional career nearly simultaneously on three continents would be unusual for most playwrights, but for King, who grew up between Thailand, the Philippines and Australia and now divides her time between New York, London and Sydney, globalism is the name of the game.

“I’m basically a global citizen,” King told me last week.

We chatted by Skype as King rode a train to the Sydney Theatre Company, where the Australian production of her new play was in rehearsals.

White Pearl, which launched King’s international career, is set in the cultural melting pot of Singapore and features six characters of different Asian backgrounds who work for the fictional beauty startup Clearday. When someone leaks an ad for their skin-whitening cream, the Internet pounces, pronouncing the ad racist and prompting finger pointing among the six very different – but all Asian – women who lead the company. Someone’s getting fired, but who?

King started writing the play in 2016 while she was pursuing an MFA in dramaturgy at Columbia University.

“Ads started coming up on my newsfeed for skin-whitening products that were deemed to be racially insensitive,” she said. “Products like this were ubiquitous when I was growing up in Thailand and the Philippines, so it was fascinating to me that suddenly they were being held accountable to a global discourse around race.”

King asked her friends in Columbia’s Women of Color Collective about their experiences with whitening cream and discovered that the topic hit a nerve with women from all different backgrounds.

“It doesn’t matter what country you come from. You are being sold an idea of what beauty looks like that is so entrenched in your cultural ideology.”

In crafting a dark comedy about the beauty industry, King found the perfect backdrop in corporations – particularly millennial startup culture and the disconnect between the glossy, utopian ideals and the reality of the practices and what they are selling.

“There is this disjunct between surface and substance,” she said of startup companies. “Cosmetics companies specifically prey on and monetize women’s shame and insecurity.”

White Pearl brings the issue to life through six characters: all of them Asian women, but each from very distinct backgrounds and cultures. The Clearday CEO is a British Indian woman, while the other characters have roots in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand and Singapore.

“My goal with that was to poke holes at the idea that Asia is a monoculture and to explore the specificity of different places in Asia,” King said. “But the play also explores the ongoing cultural traumas and legacies that lead to tension between different Asian cultures and the racism that still happens in Asia.”

In choosing a director for this production, Studio tapped Desdemona Chiang. Born in Taiwan and raised in L.A., Chiang known for taking on projects that illuminate marginalized populations and challenge perceptions of the status quo.

“When I first read the script, it hit me really hard – especially when it discussed the racism of East Asian people,” Chiang told me in a recent conversation. “That hit a very raw spot for me because it was something I recognize sometimes within myself and sometimes in where I come from. I found that really discomforting so I said, ‘Great, that means I have to do this play.’”

I asked Chiang how she thought White Pearl would be perceived by American audiences – Asian and non-Asian – who are geographically and often psychologically further away from Singapore than a London or Sydney audience.

“What’s interesting about this story is that it deals with the same issues we have in America but through a different lens,” she explained. “We talk about racism, classism, beauty standards and implicit bias here, but usually through a black/white lens. To tackle the same issues through a different perspective is interesting.”

King agrees: “It’s fascinating to see how this play resonates differently with different audiences and specifically, different Asian communities in different countries.”

King hopes that the exploration of intra-Asian racism will be eye-opening for non-Asian audiences in America.

“There are also things in the play that are so true of the time we are living in and so universal that will resonate with any audience. At its heart, it’s an old-school black comedy and a satire so I hope the audience laughs a lot and through that, interrogates why they are laughing.”

White Pearl runs from November 6 to December 8 at Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre. Tickets start at $20. Learn more at www.studiotheatre.org.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

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nicole hertvik

Nicole Hertvik is the editor and publisher of DC Metro Theater Arts and a freelance arts writer. She was a 2019 fellow at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute.