Playwright of White Pearl—Anchuli Felicia King

“Grotesquery, shock, and comedy are all inextricable for me. Ugliness in human nature is funny,” reflects Anchuli Felicia King on the style she works in. “Maybe the best way to talk about it is capitalist realism—meticulous grotesquery, showing how capitalist conditions influence human behaviors.” This rapacious curiosity and desire to tailor new modes of expression for the particularities of one mainstream and therefore nearly invisible structure or another (millennial culture, ever-shifting technologies, the cold hard realities of capitalism through a global lens) are as close to hallmarks of King’s ever-shifting roles and styles in the theater. King has worked professionally as a sound designer, a projections designer, a scholar, an arts administrator, and a dramaturg.

2019 seems to be a year the Thai-Australian King will specialize in playwriting. Her first play, White Pearl, premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in May. It will receive its US premiere at Studio in October and its Australian premiere in a co-production between the Sydney Theatre Company and the National Theatre of Parramatta later the same month. A second play, Golden Shield, will premiere in her native Melbourne at the Melbourne Theatre Company in mid-August, and a third, Slaughterhouse, premieres at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre in October. Not too shabby for an artist who didn’t start writing plays until 2016, in her second year in the Columbia University MFA dramaturgy program. Not that King’s looking to specialize in writing for performance—she still writes scholarly articles on the interplay of technology and modes of theatrical expression, still designs sound and projections for the theatre, works as a dramaturg, and holds down a day job as the Associate Artistic Director of 3LD in New York City, an artist-run organization that explores narrative possibilities of digital technology, both training artists and producing hybrid theater-technology work.

King traces her multifaceted interests in theater to a childhood spent growing up in multiple countries with a twin sister. As their family moved from the Philippines to Thailand to Australia, King and her sister would write musicals together (her sister did stage management, set design and lighting; she did sound design and performing.) At university in Melbourne, King trained to be a musician, but kept ending up in the theatre—composing for live theater, playing in bands for shows, designing sound. It wasn’t until she took a required playwriting class in graduate school that she realized she’d found a discipline that gave her the canvas to explore the ideas she finds most interesting and a method that put her at the center of a network of other artists. “The thing I love most about working in theatre is that it is a deeply collaborative art form,” King says. “You don’t have a hermetically sealed, heterogeneous view of the world and the work because it’s the result of multiple sources of input. You could micromanage, but where’s the fun in that?”

King is a Thai-Australian playwright whose work is produced by predominantly white organizations around the world, a dynamic that comes with assumptions she finds ludicrous but potentially productive. “There’s an assumption,” she says, “that I am only supposed to write about my experience of race. I’m supposed to encapsulate a certain cultural identity or a certain cultural experience. So one of the things that I often talk about in my plays is just how fraudulent that notion actually is, how multiplicitous our cultural identities actually are now, how fractured the very notion of a national identity is in a culture that embraces globalization spurred on by technology.”

King’s plays—at least thus far—share what she calls an “ongoing obsession with the intersection of globalism and technology.”  In White Pearl, the intersection manifested in several real-life viral racist advertisements that she used as an entry point into a critique of global capitalism and corporate culture. In this and all of her plays, King stakes a few bold claims: That ugliness can be funny (yes, even when women write it), that there are many ways to be a person of color in the world and writer of color in the theatre, and that—despite all evidence to the contrary—people can be genuinely kind. For all its brutality, King’s focus in White Pearl suggests that the grotesqueries of late-stage capitalism aren’t inevitable. As she says of the play, “there are moments of connection and humanity, which aren’t supposed to give the audience hope, necessarily, the sense that something different is possible. The Millennial condition is being trapped by things that came before us, and that are happening around us of which we have very little control.”

“The best way to unpack the complexity of a given technology is to map it onto the complexity of human beings,” says King, and Golden Shield looks directly at the politics and people of technology. The play draws on details from a real-life lawsuit filed in Texas against the Chinese government’s internet controls to look at the impossibilities of translation and communication and the ethics of working for repressive regimes. The legal drama, which was commissioned by Melbourne Theatre Company and will premiere there in October 2019, follows two Chinese-American sisters as one looks to sue a Silicon Valley tech giant for helping China build the internet firewall that allows it to crackdown on dissidents while the other serves, somewhat reluctantly, as her translator, helping her navigate language and culture. The play also features a separate character of The Translator, who speaks directly to the audience, translating more fluently between Mandarin and English—as well as offering translations for characters’ subtext and silences between them.

Slaughterhouse looks at the collision between technology and users in an explicitly absurdist vein. The play is a collection of five interconnected but contradictory monologues that follows the implosion of a start-up working to launch an ethical eating app, and features an office party in animal costumes, plenty of ill-advised hard drug use, an account of cannibalism during China’s Great Famine, and intense and brutal truths about office politics and the ethics of consumption. The play was developed at Melbourne Theatre Company as a part of its 2018 Cybec Electric play reading series; MTC’s Literary Director Chris Mead calls Slaughterhouse a "brilliant, wicked, hilarious Rubik’s cube of a play.”

King’s latest play in development won one of the “Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries” commissions from the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA. Keene is a riff on Shakespeare’s Othello, set at a PhD program and following the obsession of a female Japanese musicologist for a Black male Shakespeare scholar—he dreams of his thesis subject, Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello; she dreams of him. King calls the play a spin on early-career academia but also her “love letter to all the geniuses of color, past and present, whose contributions to Western culture have gone unrecognized.” The play is set to premiere in the 2020-2021 Season at the American Shakespeare Center.

“I’m interested in art that’s trying to find new ways of talking about our current historical condition,” says King. And whatever engrained, near invisible-and-therefore-inevitable structures that snag her imagination, she is sure to transmute them into a play of ingenuity and swagger, brutality and insight. “To some extent,” she says, “you have to recognize the shithole you’re in, in order to climb out.”

Adrien-Alice Hansel