Studio Theatre’s ‘White Pearl’ tackles globalization and intra-Asian racism with acerbic wit

If you attend Studio Theatre’s current production of the brilliantly acerbic White Pearl and feel in the first ten minutes that you’re not sure you know what’s happening, don’t worry. Playwright Anchuli Felicia King doesn’t want you to understand everything right away. She immediately gives you a sense of the madness of her world, but only slowly offers an explanation of the chaos.

Jenna Zhu, Shanta Parasuraman, Narea Kang, and Diana Huey in 'White Pearl.' Photo by Teresa Wood.
Jenna Zhu, Shanta Parasuraman, Narea Kang, and Diana Huey in ‘White Pearl.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

The play is set in present-day Singapore, a global nexus of immediate change where cultures collide and overlap with lightning speed. King, who grew up in the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia, very deliberately set her play in Singapore, knowing it to be a place where corporate culture, overweening capitalism, hypocrisy, and the legacy of British racism are all alive and well.

The play opens at the headquarters of Clearday Cosmetics, where the founder of the company, Priya Singh (Shanta Parasuraman), has just learned that a draft of an ad for their latest skin-whitening cream, White Pearl, has been leaked on YouTube and is being roundly criticized for its inherently racist message: that women who want to be more beautiful must have lighter skin; therefore, they must buy White Pearl.

As CEO, Priya knows she must stop the story before the American markets open and even more people see the ad. That means summoning the five young women who, with her, make up Clearday’s management team. They must start a plan for damage control. Finding out who posted the fake ad and assessing blame will come later.

The women of the management team are all from different home countries: India, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Singapore. And they are all wildly different types. Priya is a tall, svelte woman of Indian origin who looks cool and collected when she arrives on the morning of the disaster. But it soon becomes apparent that she has no idea how to handle this type of social media mess. Still worse, Priya is haughty, the type of boss who treats the other women who work with her like idiots, doling out to them varying degrees of respect depending on their proficiency with English.

Sunny Lee is Priya’s second-in-command. She is smarter than her boss and realizes that if the news breaks in the United States, Clearday will be ruined. Still, she has no solution. The public relations director, Built Suttikul, saunters in late. She’s a shallow Valley Girl who can offer nothing except a suggestion to find and fire the person who posted the ad.

Jody Doo and Shanta Parasuraman in 'White Pearl.' Photo by Teresa Wood.
Jody Doo and Shanta Parasuraman in ‘White Pearl.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

A young Chinese woman, Xiao Chen, regularly breaks down and cries because she knows her father is in political trouble back home. She is befriended by the company’s chemist, Soo-Jin Park. The only male in the play plays the character Marcel Benoit, who is Built’s ex-boyfriend.

Studio Theatre is particularly good at doing ensemble shows and White Pearl is nothing if not an ensemble show. The characters are all young, the result of Priya’s desire to make her company relevant to a young audience, and the playwright’s desire to spoof Millennial startup culture. As a result, most of the characters are on their smartphones all the time. Still, they have very different personalities.

Shanta Parasuraman is excellent as the thoroughly hypocritical Priya, who brags: “We try to be very democratic here.” Jody Doo plays Sunny Lee as an upbeat, no-nonsense assistant to Priya. She gives the impression of a young woman who lives for pleasure and has no problem subscribing to the company’s motto: “All women hate the way they look.”

Resa Mishina arrives shy and respectful as Ruki Minami. One can only hope for her survival among the tank of sharks. Built Suttikul, the wealthy public relations rep, is performed with outsized gestures and lots of eye-rolling by Diana Huey. Priya continually mistakes Soo-Jin Park, the South Korean chemist, for a North Korean. Narea Kang plays Park with a hilarious, explosive reaction whenever that happens. Xiao Chen, lost in her fear for her father back in China, is played with credible anxiety by Jenna Zhu. Zachary Fall turns in a superb portrayal of Marcel, Built’s ex-boyfriend, as a corrupt, lying, thoroughly despicable young man.

Desdemona Chiang directs most of the play at super-fast speed, telling the story of a marketing disaster appropriately quickly, as if she is telling the story of a wildfire. But there are a few quiet moments that allow the audience to see another side of the employees. One such is a discussion between Park and Chen where the reserved Chinese girl learns how to shout, “Bitch!”

Set designer Debra Booth creates a set that looks like layers of frosted and clear glass spanning the stage. Desks and chairs are rolled in whenever necessary. Costume designer Helen Huang chooses a brilliant array of clothes to illustrate each young woman’s personality, from Xiao Chen’s unfashionable long brown skirt to Built Suttikul’s trendy hot-pants and platform shoes.

Lighting designer Wen-Ling Liao has designed crisp blackouts to separate scenes. Sound designer Melanie Chen Cole creates an upbeat, modern sound to accompany the show. Projection designer Rasean Davonte Johnson introduces the play with the steady count of ascending YouTube views. Later Johnson recreates, on either side of the stage, negative online comments about Clearday Cosmetics.

There are many reasons to appreciate White Pearl. First, it so clearly shows the insidious and corrosive influence of capitalism across the globe.

Second, it lays bare the Western world’s tendency to lump together all nations in Asia and to assume that they have the same wants, needs, and desires.

Third, King very skillfully separates her characters, so that the audience can see how unrealistic that instinct toward homogeneity is. Finally, although King’s view of companies like Clearday Cosmetics is bleak, there are moments of real goodwill and friendship in White Pearl, suggesting that not all bosses are as brutal as Priya is and not all corporations are as “toxic” as the Asian firms Priya sets out to destroy.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

EXTENDED: White Pearl plays through December 15, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-332-3300 or go online.

Production Credits:
Dialect Consultant: Leigh Smiley
Properties Designer: Matt Carlin
Stage Manager: Madison Bahr
Technical Director: Jeffery Martin


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