Review by James Mukheibir
Arriving into the Wharf Theatre for the latest iteration of White Pearl, the audience is greeted by pulsing music and large AV billboards depicting sensual skincare ads. This is a sign of things to come, as the energy of this first moment does not let up for the rest of the show. White Pearl, penned by the prolific Anchuli Felicia King, is a confronting satire that refuses to have its voice go unheard. Housed on an impressive set by Jeremy Allen and directed by Priscilla Jackman, White Pearl marks an important moment in the growth of Australian theatre.
Set in a fictional (but not too far from real) Singaporean skincare company Clearday, White Pearl confronts the beauty standards, racism and sexism that exist in Asian culture, unpacking the corporate world that peddles skin whitening cream. As their unethical and bigoted practices are brought to the attention of the world through a viral video, the characters strip back their civil facades and lie, scheme and abuse their power to find any way to avoid the consequences. With a cast made up almost entirely of Asian women, White Pearl is a rollercoaster ride of diverse experiences that are so often assumed or appropriated by those who have not lived them. This gives the whole show a refreshing perspective and authenticity that caught the eye and hearts of audiences in its 2019 Riverside Theatre run.
White Pearl does not shy away from the confronting nature of its subject matter, with each character being largely unlikeable in their own way, perhaps excluding Ruki (Kaori Maeda-Judge), the newbie on the team. Each scene is carried forward by toxic aggression and racism between the various and diverse Asian ethnic perspectives with some of the insults particularly hard to swallow for the largely white audience. There was a tangible discomfort in the titters and chuckles as the characters became increasingly comfortable in expressing their bigotry through jokes. This discomfort was elevated by Michael Toisuta’s sound design, as scenes were separated by pounding music of increasingly ear-splitting volume.
As a white, male reviewer, I must take a moment to acknowledge that there is a very high chance that many of the cultural insights and much of the satire went over my head, however it remains confronting to sit through increasingly vile racist remarks that led to minimal consequence. These seemed to be in the show for the shock value, and the level of aggression behind the racist beliefs of the characters drowned out some of the more nuanced themes that the script touched on. Moreover, there was also a heavy-handedness to the way domestic abuse, sexual violence and revenge porn was utilised as a plot device, once again with minimal consequence besides a few crude jokes made at the expense of the victim. This element of the show felt largely unneeded, aside from perhaps a brief dip into themes of misplaced righteousness within ‘woke’ communities, embodied by the only white male character and actor in the show, but once again these ideas were drowned out by the terrible things happening to the character involved.
With that said, White Pearl is an important piece of theatre. It is rare you get to see such a divergence from theatre’s predominantly white, male voice on a main stage and the team behind this production have done an excellent job bringing this loud and in-your-face play to life. It is a trailblazer and has explosively opened the space for Australian theatre to hear the multitude of diverse voices emerging into the space.