Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Oct 24 – Nov 9, 2019
Playwright: Anchuli Felicia King
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Deborah An, Mayu Iwasaki, Matthew Pearce, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Merlynn Tong, Catherine Văn-Davies, Shirong Wu
Images by Phil Erbacher
A cosmetics company specialising in skin whitening creams, wakes up in hot water, when one of its ads appears online prematurely and quickly goes viral, as a result of its shockingly racist content. The Clearday headquarters in Singapore instantly turns into a war room, with executives desperately scrambling for damage control. All six of them are Asian women, from various parts of the world, each with a different experience of race and its associated politics. In Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl, we see the group devolve into a belligerent mess of conflicting principles, unable to sustain an alliance forged initially by very dubious ethics.
It is a sensational piece of writing, thoroughly researched and passionately rendered. White Pearl throws us into a cauldron of frenzied chaos, but each line of dialogue is crafted with immense precision, for an insightful examination not only of capitalism and racism, but also of the classism and sexism that govern so much of how these characters operate. The play’s unravelling of corporate culture, engenders a caustic sense of humour that keeps us on edge, for a wildly funny theatrical ride that never releases us from its moral interrogations.
Director Priscilla Jackman keeps dramatic intensity at fever pitch for the entire duration, establishing an unrelenting awareness in our consciousness reminding us that the stakes are very high indeed, not only in the fiction that we encounter, but also the real life implications of this timely tale about our social responsibilities as groups and individuals. Sound design by Michael Toisuta and Me-Lee Hay amplifies the women’s stress levels, to fill the auditorium with shuddersome atmospheric pressure. Jeremy Allen’s production design and Damien Cooper’s lights are nimbly manufactured, to keep the storytelling moving at lightning speed. The playwright’s own video projections feature social media comments relating to the offending incident, ranging from amusing to appalling, working as a device that constantly widens the story’s context, so that each viewer can remain personally connected with the narrative. Dramaturg Courtney Stewart does remarkable work that allows the play to consistently resonant with accuracy.
Seven actors form a formidable ensemble to deliver an intelligent and highly entertaining show, that reveals many truths about who we are today. Priya Singh, the British Indian founder of the company is portrayed by the phenomenal Vaishanavi Suryaprakash, whose extraordinary range enables an endlessly textured study of a woman in deep trouble. It is a powerful performance that exposes the human and structural problems of the modern business world. Also very affecting is Deborah An, who plays Korean scientist Soo Jin Park, bringing incredible nuance and emotional gravity to the depiction of a very dire situation. Merlynn Tong (as Sunny Lee) and Shirong Wu (as Xiao Chen) are unforgettable for providing the biggest laughs, both immaculate with their comic timing, and wonderfully idiosyncratic with their respective interpretations of ethnically Chinese women, the former from Singapore, and the latter China.
Catherine Văn-Davies plays Built Suttikul, a fabulously wealthy, American-educated Thai national, with imposing confidence and a vigorous physicality that defies any underestimation of the ladies in White Pearl. Her sensitive choices for a sex scene brings surprising elevation to the character, and highlights the persistent impossibly of retaining integrity in the pursuit of commercial supremacy. Her French ex-lover Marcel Benoit too, becomes unexpectedly complex, as performed by a self-possessed Matthew Pearce. New addition to the “Clearday family”, Japanese recruit Ruki Minami is perfectly balanced between naivety and wisdom by Mayu Iwasaki, for a personality that demonstrates the limits of human integrity, in the stupefying face of money and power.
Clearday sells products nobody needs, that could very well be harmful. The people who comprise the company, expend all their energy on questionable activities, so that they may one day feel like a leader of the pack. This is the narrative not only of White Pearl, but also of many a conventional life in the modern world. Money and power are blinding, they shape our values so that we make compromises to morality, in the promise of a glory that rarely comes to fruition. We disregard justice, to uphold racist, sexist and classist ideals every day, in hope that the system would reward us with all that it professes, but in fact, as we see in the play, no one will emerge truly victorious.