London Theater Review: ‘White Pearl’

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

Kae Alexander, Farzana Dua Elahe, Arty Froushan, Katie Leung, Kanako Nakano, Minhee Yeo, Momo Yeung.

1 hour 25 minutes

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.

Creative: 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.

More Legit

  • The Kilroys The List

    Listen: New List, New Leaders as the Kilroys Push for Parity

    The collective of writers and producers known as the Kilroys has been pushing for gender parity in the theater for five years now. With the launch last week of the latest edition of the List — the group’s annual round-up (inspired by Hollywood’s Black List) of plays by women, trans and non-binary writers — members [...]

  • Annette Bening

    Star-Studded Cast to Perform Live Reading of the Mueller Report

    Haven’t perused the Mueller report yet? A star-studded cast, including Annette Bening, Kevin Kline, and John Lithgow, can read it to you. For one night only on Monday, June 24, stars will perform a live reading of passages from the Mueller report for “The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts,” Robert Schenkkan’s [...]

  • Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to

    Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to Be This Timely

    When Paula Vogel began writing “Indecent” in 2010, she had no idea how resonant its exploration of immigration woes, anti-Semitism and homophobia in the past century would become in the current political climate. The Tony-nominated play, running until July 7 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater, traces the theatrical history of 1907 Yiddish play “God of Vengeance” [...]

  • Bitter Wheat review

    West End Review: John Malkovich in David Mamet's 'Bitter Wheat'

    How soon is too soon? Hardly a year had passed since allegations against Harvey Weinstein were made public before David Mamet announced that his satire on the subject, “Bitter Wheat,” was set to star John Malkovich in the West End. Six months later, we’re sat watching a corpulent, super-rich movie mogul — Barney Fein (cough, [...]

  • Batman Julia Roberts Spike Lee

    Batman, Julia Roberts, Spike Lee Among 2020 Walk of Fame Honorees

    Batman, Julia Roberts and Spike Lee are among the names selected to be inducted into the 2020 Walk of Fame. The full list of honorees was announced by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Walk of Fame Selection Committee via an exclusive livestream by Variety. Chosen from hundreds of nominees during a selection meeting in June, [...]

  • Tracy Letts

    Tracy Letts' Comedy 'The Minutes' to Hit Broadway in 2020

    Playwright Tracy Letts’ comedy “The Minutes” will hit the Broadway stage in Feb. 2020. “The Minutes,” written by actor, producer and playwright Letts, is a comedy taking a look at the current state of American politics through the lens of a small, fictional town called Big Cherry. The play is set in a city council [...]

  • Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer

    Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer of MWM Live (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Forshaw has been named executive producer of MWM Live, Variety has learned. The theater veteran most recently served as VP of production for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. In his new role, he will oversee MWM Live’s slate of stage productions with an emphasis on expanding the division’s work on Broadway. MWM Live [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content