In White Pearl, playwright Anchuli Felicia King quickly throws the audience into a keenly contemporary conflict: a viral social media PR crisis, with a company accused of racism.
Inspired by an actual 2016 controversy that played out in Thailand, the blistering satire White Pearl (making its U.S. premiere at Studio Theatre) has a fictional cosmetics company based in Singapore in its sights. They’ve come under fire after a series of advertisements, ostensibly meant to be funny but with inarguably racist overtones, even including blackface, get leaked online. The product, to make things worse, is a skin-whitening cream, one that dances around such implications by promising customers their skin will be “clear” and “bright” rather than lighter. White Pearl watches the company quickly rip apart at its seams when its leaders attempt to navigate the crisis.
White Pearl’s opening has a vivid sense of urgency, with a marketing executive collapsed in tears on the floor and a digital ticker (representing views of the abhorrent video) quickly racing up closer to a million (and eventually well-past that). Director Desdemona Chiang’s production uses splashes of such multi-media imagery throughout White Pearl that keep it firmly grounded in the present. White Pearl touches on some heavy topics: standards of beauty worldwide, what constitutes racism in various cultures, etc., but the play isn’t only about big ideas. No character is safe from being skewered, whether it’s CEO Shanta Parasuraman (Priya Singh) for her inability to speak Asian languages, Sunny Lee (Jody Doo) for the performative hip-hop touches in her speech patterns, or Soo-Jin Park (Narea Kang) for her cynical view that cultural backlash in Asia won’t be nearly as bad as the company fears — since she thinks those viewing the ads are at least as racist as the ads themselves.
White Pearl closes December 15, 2019. Details and tickets
In some ways, White Pearl’s workplace, all women of color in leadership positions, feels almost utopian (and that’s how CEO Singh smugly sells it). But it quickly becomes clear it’s anything but: corporate culture is the target in one of the play’s smartest scenes, which flashes back to the first company meeting for the ingenue office manager Resa Mishina (Ruki Minami), where the firm talks a big game about its “start-up mentality” and egalitarian meetings, and quickly devolves into how best manipulate its customer base.
Studio Theatre, though, has still managed its own utopia of sorts with the incredible cast it has assembled for White Pearl. Each actress is more formidable than the next: Parasuraman has a biting sharpness as Singh, and she plays nicely off Doo’s sarcastic, quick-witted Lee (King has a good ear for the slang-peppered dialogue of contemporary Singapore). Diana Huey’s Built Suttikul is saddled with White Pearl’s less-interesting sideplot (her personal connection to the man responsible for leaking the video), but she proves herself a scene-stealer regardless.
There’s a definite bleakness to White Pearl — the play ends abruptly with one woman viciously ostracized while the others literally laugh in her face, and no one really appears to have learned much of anything as the metaphorical curtain closes. But the provocative ideas of White Pearl linger in an unsettling way: it’s a dark corporate world out there, maybe especially for those running it.
White Pearl by Anchuli Felicia King. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. With Jenna Zhu, Shanta Parasuraman, Jody Doo, Resa Mishina, Diana Huey, Narea Kang, and Zachary Fall. Set design: Debra Booth. Costume design: Helen Huang. Lighting design: Wen-Ling Liao. Sound design: Melanie Chen Cole. Production design: Rasean Davonte Johnson. Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hansel. Dialect Consultant: Leigh Wilson Smiley. Properties Designer: Matt Carlin. Production stage manager: Madison Bahr. Director of production: Josh Escajeda. Technical director: Jefferey Martin. Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Missy Frederick.