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Meet the 25-year-old playwright taking over Australian theatres this year

Written by
Polly Simons

It’s safe to say that 25-year-old Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King is pretty busy right now. After premiering her first (yes, first) play, White Pearl, at London’s Royal Court Theatre in June, she’s about to take it to Sydney Theatre Company in a co-production with the National Theatre of Parramatta and then Washington DC. Then there’s her play Golden Shield, which is about to open at Melbourne Theatre Company. Meanwhile, Slaughterhouse will premiere at Belvoir’s independent space, 25A, in October.

“It’s definitely been a crazy year,” she says with remarkable understatement. If King seems a little relaxed about things, it’s perhaps because she is no stranger to the theatre, having worked as a dramaturg, sound designer and projection designer in Australia and New York before picking up the pen in 2016 during her dramaturgy studies at Columbia University.

Written on her summer break from Columbia, White Pearl follows six Asian women after a racist ad from their company’s signature skin whitening product has gone viral, causing global outrage. Almost from the outset, King knew she had hit on something special. 

White Pearl. Photograph: Rene Vaile.

“Even at that point, I could tell that – particularly with the response that the Asian community was having to it, and the Asian actors who got to work on the play who felt really strongly about it – it felt really rewarding,” she says. The play went on to win a prestigious playwriting award at Columbia and was given a reading at Roundabout Theatre Company, before being picked up by the Royal Court, Sydney Theatre Company and Studio Theatre in Washington DC. “It got programmed really quickly, which is not the normal trajectory, particularly for one’s first play,” she says. “So yeah, it has felt pretty astronomic.”

Her second play, Golden Shield, is no less ambitious. Inspired in part by the Doe v Cisco Systems lawsuit, in which a group of Chinese political prisoners sued the company who provided the technology for security forces to monitor them, it follows young lawyer Julie Chen (played by Fiona Choi), who leads a class action to expose an American tech giant’s involvement with the Chinese government’s internet firewall, Golden Shield. 

“The crux of both plays is really the intersection of rapid globalisation and rapid digitalisation,” King says. “In a weird way, both plays explore why it is that in a world of such rapid digital acceleration, we’re getting worse at communicating with each other.”

Golden Shield. Photograph: Isamu Sawa.

As a child, King’s father’s job as an environmental scientist kept the family on the move, and her teenage years were split between international schools in Manila and Melbourne, and summers in Thailand. “Global policy has become the family business – my dad still works for big international organisations, my sister works for the World Trade Organisation, so when I say globalism is at the forefront of my thoughts, it’s also my family business,” she says. 

Not surprisingly, the global community is something she tries to model in her rehearsal rooms. In the author’s notes for White Pearl, she urges future directors to “not be a dick” and choose actors from the same cultural background as their characters, while Golden Shield is written in English and Mandarin and includes both native and non-native English speakers. 

“I like working in global villages and the kind of plays I write, I want to create certain types of rehearsal rooms where we have lots of immigrant artists from all over the world; there are multilingual rehearsal rooms that are places of solidarity but also of learning and accepting where you have cultural differences and where you’re ignorant and blinkered,” she says.

Asian women in particular, she says, suffer not only from a lack of roles but a lack of complexity in the characters they play. “I have a lot of female Asian friends who are wonderful, complex human beings and I feel that I didn’t see us getting represented anywhere near to the level of complexity I would like,” she says. “I didn’t want sugar-coated utopian depictions of Asianness all the time. During my time at Columbia, I saw all these phenomenal Asian actors that were getting boxed out of roles because they were non-native English speakers or people thought they didn’t conform to a certain type and I was like, ‘this is bullshit’. These actors are brilliant and should be given the same opportunities as their white counterparts.”

Anchuli Felicia King in rehearsals for Golden Shield. Photograph: Deryk McAlpin.

While King doesn’t actively court controversy, she also doesn’t want to shy away from the ugly realities of racism, both between Asians and between Asia and the rest of the world.

“I think the best thing I can do as an artist is just throw these issues up in the air and examine them deeply and ask questions about them, and each audience member will take away something different from it based on their experiences,” she says. “Someone once said to me theatre is a time consuming and costly medium to make people feel comfortable and I think that’s true. If you want to make people feel comfortable, work in another art form.”

Next up for King is the United States, where she’ll oversee the Washington DC production of White Pearl and work on her next project, a response play to Othello set in the world of Shakespearean academia, commissioned by the American Shakespeare Centre. 

“You know I have the luxury of being a global playwright right now and I’m pretty happy doing that,” she says. “I’m dipping my toes into film and TV but mostly I want to keep on having the time and space to write the kind of stories I want to write. I’ve only functionally been a playwright for two years, so who knows? In a year, I might be working in a Starbucks. I’m just enjoying the process of getting to do this work in all these little global villages.”

Golden Shield is at Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, Aug 12-Sep 14. White Pearl is at the Riverside Theatre, Sydney, Oct 24-Nov 9. Slaughterhouse is at Belvoir, Sydney, Oct 16-Nov 2.

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