Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss. Anchuli Felicia King’s corporate satire has opened at Queensland Theatre and sets out to tackle a broad range of issues, from intracultural racism to start-up culture and the cosmetics industry.
Directed by Priscilla Jackman, White Pearl follows the aftermath of an ad that goes viral for all the wrong reasons. Cosmetic start-up Clearday’s newest advertisement has been leaked online and is being widely criticised as racist – and not because it is selling their White Pearl skin whitening products. The Clearday team rush to mitigate the damage and find the source of the leak, but the comment section is filling up and the view counter ticks endlessly upwards. Meanwhile, tensions are also rising to boiling point in the open plan office, bringing to the surface a tide of rage, racism, and resentment that no cream or concealer can hide.
Among the laundry list of issues that the play touched on were animal testing in the cosmetics industry, groupthink and toxic corporate environments, cultural capital and globalisation, start-ups and “hustle culture”, and the shame and self-loathing that the beauty industry actively cultivates in its (predominantly female) customer base. The play also opens an interesting conversation about the global market, and the ways in which companies and products are increasingly accountable to consumers and observers outside of their national or regional contexts.
Although the timeline was not always clear, it seemed to take place over the course of a single day, with the Clearday team rushing to contain the story before it reached the English language media. Comments projected onto the overhead screens presented a similar variety of viewpoints, from those wishing harm on the Clearday team to those who defended the ad and encouraged others to ‘take a joke’.
The all-female team at Clearday included women from a variety of cultural backgrounds – English, Singaporean, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and American – and all were distinctive characters struggling with their own attachments to the business, its product, and what each of those things represented. Although some of the acting was stilted in the opening scenes the actors quickly found their groove, and all gave committed and emotive performances. The onstage tension and chemistry between the Clearday team was excellent as events escalated throughout the work.
Priya (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash) was the company’s founder and fearless leader, supported by offsider Sunny (Cheryl Ho), whose big personality contrasted against Priya’s uptight neurosis. Built (Nicole Milinkovic) took a casual approach to the viral video but had her own secrets and shames to hide, while Ruki (Mayu Iwasaki) did her best to keep the peace within the office. Xiao (Lin Yi) struggled with family matters unfolding at home and shared her fears and concerns only with her stoic colleague Soo-Jin (Deborah An), whose strong ideas and sense of self lead them both further into the drama unfolding at Clearday. Into that mix was thrown Marcel (Matthew Pearce), Built’s French ex-boyfriend, who provided a cultural counterpoint to the cast of pan-Asian characters.
Design by Jeremy Allen, lighting design by Damien Cooper, and composition and sound design by Michael Toisuta and Me-Lee Hay brought the offices of Clearday to the stage, from the neon bright boardroom to the sanctuary of the office bathroom. The compartmentalised set was effective in separating public and personal interactions, and small set and prop changes were coordinated smoothly by the cast during partial blackouts. Projections designed by the playwright provided a window into the insidious online world as the video was watched again and again, and glitchy sound and graphics added to the idea of beauty as an illusion, and to the sense of unreality as things began to unravel completely.
White Pearl doesn’t ask simple questions or provide easy answers, but pulls together a wide range of issues and aims to leave plenty of space for nuance. It is a fast-paced satire filled to the brim with ideas about race, culture, and capitalism that will be sure to get you talking on the drive home.