Beauty is a big industry in Asia, and the way it is addressed—in commercials, and in conversation—is often blunt. In South Korea, subway stations are adorned with ads for plastic surgeons, with “before” and “after” photos of patients. In some “after” photos, the patient also wears a wedding ring.
Commenting on physical appearances is something akin to a national pastime in Asia. At least in Korea, there is a linguistic explanation for this. In the Korean language, many adjectives are verbs. The word for being fat, for example, is ddoong-ddoong hada, which literally translates to “doing fat.” Being fat isn’t a condition, it’s an activity, something you do. Thus everyone—especially my relatives—feels entitled to constantly comment on my favorite hobby, being fat.
This blunt assessment of beauty infuses White Pearl, a play by Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King, to uncomfortable and hilarious effect, depending on your personal experience. The product it examines is skin-lightening cream, a racist anachronism to many Americans, and a very normal product to many Asians. King’s inspiration comes from a notorious Chinese ad, which showed a black man being shoved into a washing machine by a Chinese woman and coming out light skinned and Chinese, to her delight. The ad went viral as “the most racist TV commercial ever made” in the West; in China, of course, it was uncontroversial.
King’s play takes off from that, depicting the undoing of a seemingly progressive woman-run cosmetics startup in Singapore following the release of a similarly problematic, though unseen, ad. The characters make no effort to downplay their work: They’re in the skin-whitening industry, and their ad is objectively racist. There is no moral grappling to do, just calculated decision-making about how to contain the fallout once Buzzfeed gets a hold of the ad, and whether it’s even a problem at all. As Korean chemist Soo-Jin (Narea Kang) points out, if their customer base is mostly in Asia, they likely won’t care.
But things go off the rails quickly, thanks to crazy Frenchman Marcel (Zachary Fall), who attempts to use the ad to blackmail his ex, Built (Diana Huey), into getting back together with him. As online outrage grows (depicted on stage through projections of YouTube pageviews), the once supportive workplace turns on itself, and its executives, Priya (Shanta Parasuraman) and Sunny (Jody Doo) start looking for scapegoats. Candidates include Xiao (Jenna Zhu), who approved the ad, Soo-Jin, who is not above blackmail herself, and Ruki (Resa Mishina), a naive recent hire from Japan.
Refreshingly, White Pearl doesn’t bother to delve into the morality of the product around which it revolves. It takes for granted that women around the world are willing to poison themselves to make themselves look whiter, and that people make a lot of money helping them do so. As Ruki helpfully points out, selling such a product requires playing up women’s insecurities, as well as their shame about having them. After all, we live in a society that demands women spend money and effort to change their looks, then belittles them as frivolous for doing so. You can’t just call it whitening cream, says Ruki: “Call it Clear and Bright,” a reference to the very real (and very profitable) whitening product Fair & Lovely.
White Pearl isn’t a story of race or nationality, despite its multiracial and multinational characters and cast. It’s a story of an office, one in which cultural prejudices float freely, are occasionally weaponized in pointed exchanges, but are, like their product, taken for granted. But as the scandal heats up, solidarity breaks down and the venom comes out. King draws out rich personalities among her characters: from Sunny, who postures with a stilted hip-hop argot despite, as Built points out, having never left Singapore; to Priya, the high strung and verbally abusive boss; to the insouciantly unhinged stalker Marcel, who doesn’t realize how nuts he is.
The acting is strong all around, anchored by Huey as Built, a go-getter who, as the victim of Marcel’s machinations, struggles to hold her life and her job together. The traumas she endures are at once painful and funny, and Huey balances her tragicomic role perfectly. The cast is as diverse as the characters, although some accents are unnecessarily exaggerated, as with Priya and Soo-Jin. But there are no cheap other-ing jokes about foreignness; the play, in fact, climaxes with a multilingual comparison of racist insults for foreigners. (The only one I knew was kojengi, which means big nose and is Korean slang for white people.)
More plays like White Pearl should be written, and theater companies should strive to stage them. Not merely plays by and about (non-white) women, though there are too few of those, but plays that force audiences to consider the subjective nature of things we are used to seeing from one perspective. White Pearl never lectures, and never patronizes, and it never fails to entertain in its depiction of a terrible business you somehow find yourself hoping to succeed, warts and all.
1501 14th St. NW. $60–$90. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.
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