White Pearl review

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
White Pearl National Theatre of Parramatta 2019 supplied
Photograph: Philip Erbacher

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Sydney Theatre Company is teaming up with the National Theatre of Parramatta for this new play

In contrast to the dreamy pinks and pastels of the beauty advertisements pumped out by fictional cosmetic start-up Clearday, Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl refuses to pander to neat appearances. In this blisteringly funny satire, a racist ad for Clearday’s skin-whitening cream ‘White Pearl’ goes viral. Over the next 85 minutes, its staff members’ resolves are tested to their limits in an attempt to save face – the heat rising in the boardroom as they reveal their truest, ugliest selves to each other.

The scenario of a PR disaster naturally opens up the space for office tensions to stew away, but King’s play complicates matters with a sharp critique of “alternative” corporate culture, and intra-cultural racism. In the company’s Singapore headquarters, Priya (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash), the Indian-British CEO and founder of Clearday, and Sunny (Merlynn Tong), her Singaporean assistant, begin to craft a press statement to diffuse the crisis, chewing away on chips from their KFC buckets. Meanwhile, Soo Jin (Deborah An), the South Korean chemist, and Xiao (Shirong Wu) are in the bathroom; Xiao confesses her role in greenlighting the ad, and fears her deportation back to mainland China. Both Soo and Xiao – to Priya and Sunny’s outrage – don’t understand the racist implications of the ad’s use of blackface, and on the floor of the cubicle, they laugh it off as a joke.

With clashing personalities and so many ingrained racial prejudices confined in one space, it feels like a ticking time bomb waiting to happen. But despite its messy, complex ideas, King’s play brings a ruthless clarity to each line of dialogue – the writing ricochets effortlessly between its characters and comes off as hugely entertaining. There’s a certain thrill to watching a high-pressure drama spiral out of control, and here it’s also packed with piercing insight into the global consequences of a product that capitalises off anti-blackness. In doing so, King gleefully tears down the facades of the seemingly progressive start-up with a dark wit, exposing the grimy hypocrisies of its super-chill, think-tank mentality. A flashback sequence, clocking back a year ago on Japanese office manager Ruki’s (Mayu Iwasaki) first day, most overtly warns of the price the team will have to pay. Clearday’s fate feels doomed from the very start.

Most brilliantly, the writing doesn’t so much spoon feed as it does offer an opportunity to divulge in complicated concepts on a global scale, such as the nuances between diaspora and homeland Asians, and the traumas attached to belonging in liminal spaces. King’s assured approach to her female characters – equally magnetic as they are spiky – reflects exactly what makes her play so riveting: the unapologetic display of blemishes and imperfections. The cast’s excellent performances bring that alive with detailed cultural specificity to their characters’ idiosyncrasies, honed with such veracity to pop off the page onto the stage. Tong and Wu are particular stand-outs; Tong is a joy to watch as the big-personality Sunny, and Wu milks Xiao’s tendency to over-cry and meekness to delightful comic effect.

Director Priscilla Jackman embeds ensemble scenes with a thrumming rhythm and a brisk tempo to let the words fall into place with zinging vitality. Though there are many intricate layers, Jackman knits the play’s ideas into a cohesive whole, making it digestible and thought-provoking without sacrificing any of its tough messages. 

The play loses a bit of steam when it switches focus on a blackmail subplot involving the brash Thai-American heiress employee Built (Catherine Van-Davies) and her manipulative French ex-boyfriend, Marcel (Matthew Pearce) – where the source of the leak lies. Their relationship, driven by dysfunction and class humiliation, works as an interesting juxtaposition to what’s happening upstairs in the Clearday offices, but the stakes don’t rub off nearly as dramatic or compelling.

Even so, White Pearl remains riotous and undeniably clear-eyed. The production design is slick and modern, with King’s whizzy screen projections displaying social media comments and the rising video hits with increasing frenzy. Placed on Jeremy Allen’s trendy, polished set and flooded under Damien Cooper’s harsh fluorescent white lighting, the show effectively conjures up a setting that’s both contemporary and artificial. And in pulling absolutely no punches, the play charges headfirst to the end of the timeline – the aftermath is manic and terrifying.

By: Debbie Zhou

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