A start-up beauty company, Clearday Cosmetics, are in a state of utter chaos as a skin whitening cream ad goes viral for all the wrong reasons after being leaked online.
Can’t quite picture it? Well, think of an ad portraying skin whitening like this…
Or even this…
White Pearl, written by Anchuli Felicia King, of Thai-Australian descent, is a work of satire that leaves the audience on the edge of their seat from the tension. The play explored relevant themes that ranged from colourism and blackface in Asia to cancel culture to corruption in the workplace.
Priscilla Jackman directs the play with thorough attention to detail, purposely making sure that each of the actors were giving their character distinct accents for the audience as an education process to indicate that not all Asians are the same.
As an Asian-Australian, it was very refreshing to see a representation of diverse Asian experiences. However, I would have personally loved to see more backgrounds beyond East Asia in the play, because while there were characters with Indian and Thai heritage, there are many other countries in Asia that I would love to see being represented.
The set design by Jeremy Allen with screen projections showing crude social media comments and soaring views on the AV billboards along with the loud, pulsing music by Michael Toisuta added a layer of tension that made your heartbeat so loudly, wondering what would happen in the next scene. Allen’s set was simplistic, and when paired with Damien Cooper’s bright lighting, not only set the scene on a sleek set but also allowed for easy yet effective transitions. The bathroom scenes on-stage were clever in the way it was revealed to the audience and created a focal point, however from some angles from where the audience was seated, it may have been hard to see. Cooper’s lighting also helped in spotlighting interactions between characters.
CASTING NOT ALL ASIANS ARE THE SAME
Each of the cast executed their character very well with their own flare and interpretation of their character. It was refreshing to see a diverse cast, who were mainly an all-female Asian cast, portrayed their characters beautifully, showing each character’s complexities while showcasing equally complex issues. While each of their characters was somewhat messy and unlikeable in their own way- perhaps except for Ruki Minami who is still fairly new to the start-up company, the audience is able to still find some humanity in each character due to the compelling execution of all of the cast. Each character’s distinguished accents added interest to the play and while the accents did stereotype Asian backgrounds, it was clear that this was done to cater for the audience who were predominantly white, older generations.
Witnessing a survival of the fittest through a blame game on stage built tension among the audience, but the humanity of each character’s nationality and how they viewed their colleagues of different backgrounds eased that tension with playful dynamics between the characters.
In particular, it was humorous to bear witness the scene between Mayu Iwasaki and Shirong Wu’s characters, making the assumption that the two would not get along because they are Chinese and Japanese due to historical differences. It was a great scene to watch, especially knowing that Mayu, who is of Japanese background, and JJ Chen, Captain Bagrat’s founder, who has Chinese heritage, are good friends in real life!
Manali Datar plays the role of the powerful and intimidating boss, Priya Singh, who is an Indian-Singaporean with a strong British accent since she attended schooling there. Her powerful voice gave a depth of authority and harshness to her character that would make you flinch in your seat every time she would throw an insult at her coworkers. Because of Priya’s corporate agenda, she always played the role of the tough boss instead of the empathetic friend.
Melissa Gan is the easy-going Chinese-Singaporean Sunny Lee, with an American dudebro-speak and Singlish, acting as a mediator almost until the very end. Gan’s character similarly plays the role of the audience, reflected through her witty one-liners.
Deborah An, who plays South Korean Soo-Jin Park, depicts an intelligent scientist, however, is seemingly close-minded with controversial opinions, especially regarding colourism in Asia. An shows Soo-Jin to be an equally strong-minded character to Priya, who, fittingly enough, is probably the only character suited to butt heads with Priya. Coming from South Korea, the land of the beautiful and fairest of skin tones, Soo-Jin’s culture would probably lead her to not see Priya, who is of darker skin tone, as an equal. This is seen through Priya and Soo-Jin’s dynamics, with Soo-Jin showing no respect to Priya despite being her boss. Priya and Soo-Jin’s relationship highlights the ongoing issue of colourism in Asia and their unconscious bias towards one another due to their own cultural values regarding skin tone.
Shirong Wu portrays the role of Xiao Chen, a Chinese woman who is always quick to lie on the bathroom floor and burst into tears if she thinks she caused offence- much to Priya’s infuriation, leading to even more tears on the bathroom floor. The audience is able to sympathise with Xiao who has a lot of pressure given her backstory of her family being investigated and her fear of returning back home to China.
Nicole Milinkovic plays Thai-American Built Suttikul, a woman who broods confidence in all that she does. When paired onstage with Stephen Madsen who plays shifty French ex-boyfriend Marcel Benoit, Milinkovic shows the extremities of her character through her exceptional acting. Madsen’s character represents entitlement as a white man, who strongly believes that there’s nothing wrong with getting what he wants, no matter the consequences.
Mayu Iwasaki, who was originally an audience member of ‘White Pearl’ and first played the role in 2018, is the Japanese rookie of the company, Ruki Minami. Her performance is enjoyable, executing her soft-spoken character as naive yet clever. Iwasaki’s character is the most likeable of the bunch, as the audience recognises that she is the only person in the room who has not been corrupted by money or greed as of yet.
As a young Asian-Australian, ‘White Pearl’ was a joy to watch. It was great to see such deeply complex characters and because of their flaws, it made them feel so real. To the audience who were predominantly white and older generations, in a way, I had hoped that the play would be an opportunity for them to learn of the stark differences in cultural values, showcasing such an important topic of colourism and attitudes toward skin whitening in Asia. From start to finish, the play leaves such an imprint on the audience presenting perspectives beyond the average white, male voice in exchange for diverse voices echoing in Australian theatre.
Eunice Cruz is a Filipino-Australian currently in her third year of Journalism and International Studies (China Major) at the University of Technology Sydney and working at SkyNews. She is always eager to learn more about other Asian cultures and is particularly interested in Korean language and culture. She has a strong passion for food, beauty and make-up. She also has a keen interest in investigative journalism and is events director of UTS Journalism Society.