“A little gem,” wrote the veteran British critic Michael Billington of the 2019 London premiere of Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King’s biting satire White Pearl.
Billington was struck by the breadth of its concerns: “Corporate hypocrisy, the base values of the beauty business, the frenzy of social media and, not least, mutual suspicion between westernised and homeland Asians.”
It’s the kind of breadth that comes naturally to King, a writer whose diverse experience and global outlook informs her work.
After its sold-out Sydney premiere in 2019, White Pearl returns for another season, this time in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2 theatre.
A boardroom drama with a dark comic edge, the play is set in the Singapore office of Clearday, a cosmetics company in the grip of an international media crisis. A video touting a skin-whitening product to Chinese consumers has gone viral for all the wrong reasons. The social media backlash is swift and brutal. Journalists are circling like sharks.
Her first full-length play, White Pearl is a comedy with teeth, says King, a play that puts the bite on issues of racism, intra-community prejudice and class. It was partly inspired by the rise of the “skin-whitening” business in Asian countries and an infamous Chinese TV commercial that saw a black man put into a washing machine.
Coming from a Thai-Australian background, King has a nuanced viewpoint on representations of different cultures on stage. At the same time, she sets out to challenging the audience’s expectations of her, as a playwright of colour, and their preconceptions about the subject matter.
“There’s an assumption that I am only supposed to write about my experience of race, that I’m supposed to encapsulate a certain cultural identity or a certain cultural experience,” King explains.
“So one of the things that I often talk about in my plays is just how fraudulent that notion actually is, how diverse our cultural identities actually are now and how fractured the notion of national identity is in a world embracing globalisation spurred on by technology. We are all so connected now that those boundaries are kind of breaking down.”
King lives a globetrotting life. She’s based in New York, feted in the UK, and has family in Australia. Her creative practice blends writing with a deep interest in digital technologies and music.
Brought up in a science-inclined family, King suspects she was always destined for a career in the arts. “I have an identical twin sister and we’d write musicals together,” she says. “We’d split up the portfolio: my sister was in charge of lighting, stage design and stage management, and I was in charge of sound design and performing. We’d often collaborate on projects like that. That, I think, more than anything, spurred on my creativity as a kid.”
During her undergrad years at Melbourne University, King composed, played gigs and created sound designs for theatre productions. “That’s when I realised I really loved pretty much every aspect of the theatre,” she says.
She tried her hand at different facets of theatre craft, from video design to costuming. But it wasn’t until she took a “compulsory” class in playwriting, during her studies at Columbia University in New York in 2016, that she discovered her passion for writing. “I was totally hooked,” she says.
King’s love of collaboration has become a cornerstone of her creative identity, which is reflected in the companies she has worked with, such as the British immersive theatre pioneers Punchdrunk and 3-Legged Dog Art & Technology Centre, a New York-based creative hub supporting original work using new technologies.
“It’s what makes theatre such a vibrant art form,” King says. “For that reason, I don’t see myself ever writing prose or other forms of written storytelling. I think of myself as a theatre technician. In whatever creative role I happen to find myself in, I just can’t see it being something that I do in isolation.”
King’s interest in the power of the written word is no less strong as her interest in the influence of digital technology.
“As a playwright I take myself to task in terms of the quality of the language that I use,” she says. “I think it’s really important in this particular political moment for female or female-identifying playwrights to write work that is muscular, to write political realism, to write work that has an adept, rigorous approach to language.
“I think often there is a sort of implicit assumption that if you are female or a female-identifying playwright, your work is supposed to be lyrical, or very emotion-based. I’m far more interested in what might typically be thought of as the male voice in playwriting, to say that, well no, male priorities shouldn’t have a monopoly on overt political realism or vulgarity or whatever else it might be.
“Mostly, I just write what I’m interested in and I don’t self-police what I write,” she says. “I think that’s when you start to get into dangerous territory, when you’re trying to write, for example, for the ‘diversity programming slot’ at a theatre. Then you start to write a very specific kind of play, and I’m not interested in writing for those reasons.”
White Pearl Plays Sydney Theatre Company Wharf 2 from July 15 – September 4