Anchuli Felicia King’s “White Pearl,” making its U.S. premiere at the Studio Theatre, is a sharp and often hilarious satire of corporate culture, the beauty-industrial complex, and cross-cultural attitudes toward race and sensitivity.
The action takes place over the course of one very long day at the sleek, hypermodern offices of Clearday, a down-market cosmetic brand based in Singapore. Mumbai-born founder Priya has assembled an all-female, pan-Asian marketing and development team to help her turn Clearday into a major player: Thai Built, Japanese Ruki, Korean Soo-Jin, Singaporean Sunny, and Chinese Xiao. This one bad day threatens their company, their futures, and in some cases, their personal freedom.
…Desdemona Chiang’s splendid production…
A draft ad for Clearday’s White Pearl, a skin-whitening cream containing harsh bleaching agents, has been uploaded to YouTube by a mysterious source. The ad for this arguably racist product is itself blatantly racist. Every day the Internet has one main character, and the ad immediately becomes that day’s. The Clearday team races into damage control mode, trying to staunch the spreading of the video and identify the culprit before the sun rises in Europe and the United States.
As the team works on its strategy, King smartly takes a scalpel to issues like class and cultural authenticity. Cosmopolitan Priya and Sunny are appalled by the ad; Soo-Jin accuses them of being less than Asian because of their Western educations and says they are watching it like Americans, not Asians. Most of Clearday’s target customers, Soo-Jin asserts, will find the ad funny, not offensive. (The Thai-Australian playwright says such advertising was common when she was growing up, and raised no outcry.)
The humor comes in the very real reactions to the building crisis among the six complex characters. Priya (Shanta Parasuraman) has the stern edge and laser focus of an executive who deeply cares about her employees right up to the moment when they become liabilities. Built (Diana Huey) and Sunny (Jody Doo) are street-smart hipsters who can’t quite believe reality is permeating their Day-Glo bubble. Ruki (Resa Mishina) fled work-obsessed Japan hoping for a friendlier vibe at Clearday, only to be sentenced to office-drone status again. Soo-Jin (Narea Kang), a scientist and realist, is less concerned with optics than with finding a quick solution to something she does not really see as a problem. Xiao (Jenna Zhu), the daughter of a Chinese official who has gotten on Beijing’s bad side, has the most to lose since the loss of her job and her work permit would mean a return to a homeland where she would likely be punished herself. (Costume designer Helen Huang has perfectly appointed each character in outfits that immediately make their respective statuses and worldview evident.)
The fast-moving play (which also features Zachary Fall as smarmy French globetrotter Marcel) moves along at the speed of the Internet. Projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson onto Debra Booth’s set show the rising YouTube hit count, a number that builds along with the tension.
The roughest part of King’s script is at its very end — it is no spoiler to say that it does not really have one. With the various conflicts resolved, at least for the day, King does not come to a satisfying denouement. It’s not a major flaw, and it does nothing to undermine director Desdemona Chiang’s splendid production, but perhaps she will one day revisit and revise the last few pages.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
“White Pearl” runs through December 8, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW in Washington. Click here for tickets.