‘White Pearl’ was toxic.
Queensland Theatre’s Bille Brown Theatre became a boardroom in meltdown on Thursday night for Anchuli Felicia King’s vicious and unsettling play ‘White Pearl’. The furious one-act production is a commentary on racism and classicism in a globalised world where beauty products undermine women’s confidence and highlights the complexities and differences between cultures through the vehicle of a multinational company.
King writes in the playwright’s note that her play is about “nuance” and the “dangers of its absence”. It’s all shades of cultures and cultural attitudes, which as we realise watching the performance, is nowhere near the black and white world that cosmetics company Clearday is selling. We see the characters caught in a competitive, high-pressure office where none of them realises the irony of their actions – that is, pointing blame, hurling race-charged insults and generally turning on one another while working for a brand with a core mission to reinforce self-hatred. Of course, when the surface is scratched, the big ethical question of today’s beauty brands is exposed: is it right to profiteer off of other people’s insecurities? Is it acceptable to market and sell superiority? And the answer in the play is a massive, chair flying, table-flipping no. King does a wonderfully uncomfortable job of forcing us to see the Clearday team do anything other than fixing the problem with their products and brand image, which made the ending that much more satisfying when truly everyone lost their minds. However, the head honcho still could not understand why her control over them had slipped. It’s dangerous and it’s dangerously current.
Technically, the show established its unsettling atmosphere notably through the rectangle projection screen above the stage, with projections by King showing hate slurs on Clearday’s viral TV commercial – viral for all the wrong reasons – which progressively became more persistent and intense as the show went on. Thumping techno-esque sounds by Michael Toisuta and Me-Lee Hay added to this gradual increase in pandemonium, both in the online world and inside the office.
Obviously, the boardroom of Clearday was sleek, modern and, yes, white. Designed by Jeremy Allen, the feel of the set topped off the “white and bright” mentality of the brand – a hip and fun light-up hand doing the peace sign on the wall, cheerful yellow stools and minimalistic lines reminiscent of an Apple store. Characters themselves wore colourful, often flamboyant clothing. The “blemish-free” world delightfully stood out against the ruthless “sell like hell” motivations beneath it.
Priscilla Jackman’s direction glued the high stakes and urgency of the situation tightly together, unravelling the office adversaries, tensions and secrets with train-like speed, which served the fast-developing crisis in the story, and each personality felt fulfilled and well characterised. The overall play, however, came off as less of a comedy and more of a corporate drama. The comedy was derived from shock factors and cursing, which was hilarious, but much of it missed the mark due to timing and delivery.
Such a diverse team is rare to come across in live theatre, and absolutely fantastic to experience. From actors through to creatives and crew, the show presented an extremely talented lineup of Thai, Japanese and Chinese artists, as well as others, sharing a story that is modern and reflective of issues happening now. On stage, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash played the fiery Priya Singh and was captivating to watch. Deborah An was the tough, strong-headed Soo-Jin Park who, together with Lin Yin who played her friend Xiao Chen, shared some of the most memorable, heartfelt and empowering scenes. Mayu Iwasaki was riveting as Ruki Minami, demonstrating her character’s fight or flight with great subtlety. Rounding out the cast was Cheryl Ho as Sunny Lee, Nicole Milinkovic as Built Suttikul and Matthew Pearce as French playboy Marcel Benoit.
‘White Pearl’ is startlingly relevant and pokes incessantly into issues that have existed since time began but have evolved for the worst in the social media age. This is a piece of theatre that is hard to forget.
‘White Pearl’ performs until Saturday, 10 July 2021 at The Bille Brown Theatre, West End. For more information visit the Queensland Theatre Website.
Photos by Phil Erbacher.