White Pearl at the Royal Court Theatre
At its essence, the aim of skin bleaching creams is whiteness. Or, at least, whiter-ness. A paler version of your skin, inching you towards a Western idea of beauty – rooted in colonialism and slavery, and extended through colourism – that places whiteness on an unassailable podium. That may be an unnuanced take on a topic that is informed by different factors region by region. However, the fact that such a subject lies at the heart of White Pearl means Anchuli Felicia King can scratch away at racism between Asian cultures, and a strand of anti-blackness across the continent, without ever letting the Royal Court’s traditionally homogenous audience off the hook.
The play is a PR person’s most sweat-drenched nightmare. A racist advert for one of ClearDay’s products has gone viral, posted anonymously on YouTube with views rocketing higher at an exponential rate. Twitter is scandalised, the comments section is a cesspit – and America hasn’t even woken up yet. Whatever thin veneer of corporate chumminess previously existed is thrown out the window as the women of the Singapore-based firm point fingers like loaded pistols.
White Pearl is nasty. It revels in its nastiness, hungry for an audience gasp or shocked laugh. Not to say there isn’t bite behind its bark. The topics covered are rarely, if ever, aired on British stages, especially one so prominent. The potential tensions, and feelings of superiority, between “westernised” Asians and “homeland” Asians; the specific negative stereotypes that exist between countries in the continent; an unchecked, sometimes actively accepted, anti-blackness that manifests here as a grossly insulting ad.
Regional attitudes towards skin whitening – and all the stuff that is attached to that – is then wrapped up with the sexism of the beauty industry, the self-hatred and shame it preys upon to shift units. Smear a layer of bankrupt capitalist ethics and the perception of weakness in the workplace on top and you have a play bulging at the seams. So much so that some threads – corruption, Chinese political terror, a creepy French dude – feel like dead ends.
Still, a surfeit of ideas is hardly a problem, especially given that White Pearl is less than 90 minutes long. King’s writing has that quality where almost every line whip-cracks through the air and leaves a welt. Combine that with the lush slickness of Moi Tran’s pastel-tech office, and some great performances from Minhee Yeo and Kae Alexander – the latter’s presence not the only reason the work recalls Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Gloria – and you’ve got a production as refreshing as a slap in the face.
Photos: Helen Murray
White Pearl is at the Royal Court Theatre from 10th May until 15th June 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.