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London Theater Review: ‘White Pearl’

The cracks show in Anchuli Felicia King's satire about Asia's cosmetics industry.

White Pearl review
Helen Murray

Playwright Anchuli Felicia King dismantles the Asian market in this misfiring satire at London’s Royal Court Theatre. “White Pearl” makes a case that those seeking to make inroads into the Far East, perceiving a new El Dorado, are no better that colonial conquistadors of an earlier age — and entirely unequipped to understand the specifics of a complex cultural region.

Bright, young cosmetics firm Clearday has wound up in hot water. Its latest skin-lightener commercial has leaked online and, given the way it outright demeans blackness, a social media stampede is picking up pace. Global news organizations are reporting on the racist campaign and Clearday’s Indian-born, British-educated founder Priya (Farzana Dua Elahe) understands exactly how badly that will play.

Somebody’s getting fired — but who? The company’s Head of China, who signed off on the ad, is sobbing in the bogs, petrified of being sent home to a repressive regime. Thai-American heiress Built might be to blame: her French ex is out to blackmail her. Meek Japanese office manager Ruki might make an easy scapegoat, Singaporean number two Sunny talks perfect sense, and her South Korean scientist isn’t too bothered: the Chinese market will find it funny, she reckons, so what does the west matter?

As the Youtube views rocket and the outrage snowballs online, the pressure only mounts on Priya and her staff — and it triggers all sorts of intra-Asian racial recriminations and post-colonial accusations.

King aims her satire at the tension between global mass markets and cultural specificity. Clearday pedals a uniform idea of beauty that transcends borders, but seems based in white culture, only for Sunny to stress the specifics of skin-lightening in individual cultures. Its advertising can’t be so subtle. Nor can the internet: as trolls and social justice warriors do battle, there’s a sense the world wide web erases the nuances of cultural identity and history.

Pointedly set in Singapore, that blankly international business hub, “White Pearl” knocks a new kind of consumerist colonialism, as western corporations seek to conquer the so-called Asian market. It’s not just that there’s a massive amalgamation in that, but that English remains the language of commerce. As Priya, Elahe unleashes coarse cusswords on Clearday’s staff for their pidgin English, favoring those fluent in international idioms, while Kae Alexander makes clear that pseudo-valley girl Built is basically on a gap year.

There’s substance to the satire of “White Pearl,” but its set-ups are so flimsy, it soon falls apart. Clearday HQ lacks any credibility as a corporation. Its crisis management strategy seems to consist of scrolling through social media and counting negative comments. King dives into a megaton disaster, rather that coaxing comedy out of an office at work, and she’s forever scolding her characters for exposition. “Don’t set the bloody scene,” Priya huffs. “I was there.”

The aim is an “Ugly Betty” sort of grotesquery, but King never quite gets there. Her characters are neither conniving nor cutthroat enough, and never liable to push each other into going postal. Even as they scrap for their professional lives, the workplace hierarchies never fully implode. The eventual scapegoats accept their fates with scarcely a shrug. A tepid staging doesn’t help, despite Moi Tran’s high-gloss design. Nana Dakin’s direction seems torn between respecting the representation in “White Pearl” and reveling in broad national stereotypes. In the end, even caricatures need credibility. “White Pearl” is just so clearly made up.

London Theater Review: ‘White Pearl’

Royal Court Theatre, London; 380 seats; £49 ($62) top. Opened, reviewed May 16, 2019. Running time: 1 HOUR 25 MIN.

  • Production: A Royal Court production of a play in one act by Anchuli Felicia King.
  • Crew: Directed by Nana Dakin; Design, Moi Tran; lighting, Natasha Chivers; sound and composition, Nicola Chang; Voice and dialect coach, Hugh O’Shea; casting director, Amy Ball.
  • Cast: Kae Alexander, Farzana Dua Elahe, Arty Froushan, Katie Leung, Kanako Nakano, Minhee Yeo, Momo Yeung.
  • Music By: