White Pearl Review

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White Pearl  – Royal Court Theatre – London, UK

Written by Anchuli Felicia King

CAST: Kae Alexander, Farzana Dua Elahe, Arty Froushan, Katie Leung, Kanako Nakano, Minhee Yeo, Momo Yeung.

“The ad campaign tells the story of a young dark-skinned Chinese woman who is left by her boyfriend for an evil lighter-skinned woman”

The play is set in Singapore at the glossy headquarters of Clearday, a fast-growing cosmetic start-up. It follows the panic after the leak of a racist advertisement for their skin-whitening cream called White Pearl. The product is fictional but as many readers will know, whitening products are very very real.

The satirical comedy provocatively addresses the core value of the cosmetic industry, that all women hate the way they look. The demand for whitening cream is a “need”, not a want. This is a murky industry that uses just-about-legal ingredients in products that may not even work. The play discusses how consumers may want to use whitening creams but without the shame of people knowing. In a flashback scene, Clearday staff decide to market their White Pearl product without using the word “whitening”. Instead, the produce will make your skin “Clear and Bright”. Perhaps this is a reference to the real-world “Fair and Lovely” products.The cast of 7 performers is made up almost entirely of Asian women. The 6 staff members of Clearday come from Chinese, South Korean, Thai, Japanese, Indian and Singaporean heritage. 

“South Asians got the whole caste thing. Thai women want to look like Korean women. Korean women want to look like dolls.”

As tension reaches breaking point, characters turn on each other. The play references historical conflict between different Asian countries. There is a rift as Westernised and homeland Asians form separate alliances. One Indian-Singaporean uses her British education to back her claims she is superior to those from the “homeland”. The play also discusses Asian identity for Westernised South Korean character says she has a more Asian perspective than her Thai-American colleague. This all tackles the Western idea that Asians are an homogenous group.

Throughout the play, you see a virtual view counter climb as the racist video spreads worldwide. They also show the Youtube comments– some show amusement, others make racist remarks, a few show outrage and reflect the real-world cancel culture that has ended careers of comedians, influencers, TV stars and more. The play boldly confronts anti-Blackness and colourism in Asian communities. One South Korean character calmly states that their customers are Asian and do not find the ad racist, but rather humorous. Despite the scandal in the West, their Asian customers will still buy White Pearl. In our real world, skin whitening products remain prominent and in some cases, dangerous.While the play is a black comedy, the audience laughed a little too hard when the reaction should have been of shock. Abusive relationships, revenge porn, almost saying the n-word and racial stereotypes are not punchlines. Perhaps this play would have been better enjoyed in an empty theatre. 

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