Pros: Sharp characterisation, a Pandora’s Box plot and rapid-fire dialogue make this play an engaging watch, particularly on a Sunday night.
Cons: With racial slurs and fiery language flying left, right and centre, it may be too full on for some viewers. There is also an over reliance on buzzwords.
The final play reading in Rich Mix’s Typhoon season is not afraid to court controversy and, in a world where racially insensitive campaign adverts can go viral in minutes (ahem, Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner calming an irate policeman, anyone?), it is perfectly timed.
Those of you who don’t know about the global beauty industry might not realise how much it caters to white shoppers, with little thought for customers of colour. Playing into the still-ingrained caste system in some Asian countries, and the idolisation of paler complexions, White Pearl centres on the making of a skin lightening cream by a cosmetics company, Clearday. The play is fiction, but similar companies do exist, and skin lightening cream genuinely appears on shop shelves everywhere from India to Thailand. This miracle cream – like the play title, White Pearl – has a promotional video, where things get even more prejudiced. A rough cut of the video (which we never see, but can hear viewers’ comments on) is leaked by a mysterious YouTuber: its inherent racism is exposed, insulting black people worldwide, using blackface, and comparing their skin to someone’s ‘black soul’. Yes, it is uncomfortable stuff. We follow the crisis management attempts at Clearday HQ, along with the rising view count on YouTube.
Anchuli Felicia King doesn’t give any of her characters an easy time – they are all exposed in turn as naïve, prejudiced, manipulative and usually unable to stand up for the people being marginalised. Their jobs are too important, their beliefs too fundamental. Nobody is the hero of the hour. Between the casual and very deliberate racial slurs they hurl, not to mention the non-racial insults (Xiao, a comically teary staffer, is told her crying ‘makes your face look like a placenta’) White Pearl can sometimes be hard to watch. However, you shouldn’t look away.
Some elements do need polishing, though. First, I struggled to work out character names and identities because I wasn’t given a programme (nor were the couple next to me, so we were all slightly lost). Over the course of the play, it takes a long time to realise that Priya (Rameet Rauli) is the founder and manager of Clearday – other characters have more control, particularly over-confident PR, Bulit (Gabby Wong), and far too casual Sunny (Charlotte Chiew). Sunny’s constant American slang, particularly calling everyone ‘bro’, grates quickly.
White Pearl demonstrates the damage our prejudices can do, and how we can miss out on building professional or personal relationships simply because we apply stereotypes to people from different countries. The play’s characters are pan-Asian, but this could equally happen in a more Western setting. Soo-Jin (Minhee Yeo), from South Korea, is mistakenly labelled North Korean; Ruki and Xiao (Rina Takasaki and Shuang Teng) are supposed to hate each other because of the conflict between their home countries, Japan and China.
White Pearl is a very contemporary and smart play, which should be picked up for a proper run to reach a wider audience. It sparks debate, engages the audience, and shows xenophobia and racism is never the answer. With a few (non-cosmetic) adjustments, it could really shine.
Author: Anchuli Felicia King
Director: Kumiko Mendl
Producer: Yellow Earth
Box Office: 020 7613 7498
Booking Link: https://www.richmix.org.uk/events/theatre/white-pearl
Booking Until: 26 November 2017