Interview with White Pearl Director Desdemona Chiang

Studio Theatre is delighted to welcome Desdemona Chiang, who will be directing White Pearl, the second show in our Main Series. She is a seasoned director of both classics and new plays, and this will be her directorial debut in DC. In this interview with assistant director Marielle Burt, Desdemona discusses her personal connections to White Pearl, the unique casting process for this production, and her thoughts on beauty industry trends. 

What excites you about White Pearl?

I was really excited when David [David Muse, Studio’s Artistic Director] first sent me the script. It was both surprising and thrilling to read a play that investigates racism, bias, and colorism through the lens of such a specific demographic—the pan-Asian, female experience. It seems like America is currently preoccupied with conversations around race, implicit bias, and explicit bias, so I found it interesting to experience these issues funneled through intra-Asian relationships.

Growing up as an Asian person, I experienced many of the issues that come up for the characters in White Pearl: conversations around how dark my skin was, whether or not I was Western enough, and how good my English was.

I also remember watching the Chinese laundry detergent commercial that inspired the play. As an American person, I was stunned, offended, shocked, and embarrassed. And yet the Chinese part of me completely understood the logic and motivations behind that commercial. In White Pearl, the character of Soo-Jin argues, “Our clients actually do see dark-skinned people this way; they will see the ad as quite funny.” She is expressing a sincere and problematic sentiment, earnestly conveying a deeply programmed racism against dark-skinned people in Asian culture. Of course, this racism is tied to imperialism and history, but it's still very problematic, and it's hard to reconcile this type of thinking as a standard of belief.

So, I’m excited to think about all those things! And it's going to be a really uncomfortable conversation because it’s so frank. Felicia’s [Anchuli Felicia King, playwright of White Pearl] writing is blunt and unapologetic, and I'm really curious to see how White Pearl plays in a time where we're very, very mindful of what we say and what is appropriate. When I first read the play, I remember feeling both excited and alarmed by how much of a call out it is.

In many ways, White Pearl is an international play: Anchuli Felicia King is a Thai-Australian playwright, the play focuses on a cosmetics company based in Singapore, and all the characters are from different countries of origin—as are many of the performers. What possibilities and challenges might this present?

We definitely had a lot of challenges and ambitions in casting. The play includes characters from Japan, Korea, and China, and characters from a colonized Asian experience—Priya is British-Indian, Built is Thai-American, Sunny is from Singapore, which has a strong British influence.

Finding actors who have an authentic sense of these identities is important, especially when it comes to language. The play calls out the fact that we often judge how intelligent or cultured people are based on how proficient and accent-free their English is. So, Felicia and I were adamant about looking for non-native English ­speakers for these roles.

My first language is Mandarin, so I can detect the nuanced difference between a well-rehearsed Chinese accent versus a Chinese person for whom English is their second language. There’s a biological response I have and it's not just about sound—it's about rhythm, it's about confidence, it's about when hiccups happen in communication. It's more than just hitting the right vowels and inflections. There's an emotional, psychological, and psychophysical connection to speech.

It is interesting and disturbing to know that White Pearl is inspired by real skin-whitening cream advertisements. Can you talk about the toxic elements of the beauty industry that are reflected in White Pearl?

Once I started working on White Pearl, I found myself going to Sephora a lot. I'm not a cosmetics person, but one of my best friends is super into skincare products. I started going shopping with her more often, and I’d spend half an hour at Sephora with her testing all these serums and gels. It was really interesting to see how the design of products in the beauty industry has changed. Take a brand like Glossier, which is a hybrid cosmetics/Silicon Valley company that is at the intersection of technology and beauty. I don't know what's technological about selling face cream, but beauty companies are constantly billed as startups, and I'm seeing more and more products being packaged in test tubes and eyedroppers.

I’m also thinking about this face serum called Prism (made by Herbivore Botanicals), which is essentially selling the idea of light. The packaging looks like an iridescent crystal, as if we're trying to become angels or be a part of the astral plane or something. It feels like marketing around beauty is about becoming clearer, brighter, and more invisible. There’s even a trend now called “glass skin,” where women go through a 10-step beauty regime to make your skin glow and seem like glass. It's so weird! We are trying to make ourselves not just white but invisible. It feels very Gattaca, very blue-light science-fiction.

Can you say more about how you are conceptualizing the role of technology more broadly in the play, particularly given the viral ad that is central to the story?

Davonte [Rasean Davonte Johnson, video and projections designer] and I have been having conversations about how we can convey a manifestation of the internet. I’m thinking of the internet, or really the viral response to this racist ad, as the eighth character in the play. In the scenes themselves, the six women are sequestered inside the office as if they were in a war room addressing a crisis. Meanwhile, there’s mounting pressure outside —growing digital noise, Twitter exploding. It feels like that pressure lives in the transitions between scenes. I’m hoping to capture the feeling of the walls closing in on the war room. I don't know what that means right now—is it just static? I'm not sure.

Part of the challenge is that our brains don't know how to comprehend something that large. I understand when you post something on Facebook and people start commenting, but visualizing the world wide web is impossible because I'm trying to picture infinity. So, I am really curious to see what Devonte and Melanie [Melanie Chen Cole, sound designer] bring as ideas. I'm sure between the design team and myself, we’ll figure out something cool.

What do you hope Studio audiences take away from White Pearl?

I wonder if any folks will see themselves in this play. It would be exciting for me if Studio audiences leave thinking “I totally understand that point of view.” One of the dangers around White Pearl is that we look at it and go, “Oh, that's a play in Singapore. It's about Asian racism, but that's not really how my world works.” But that's actually how a lot of the world works. Many people are dealing with the same office politics and corporate bullying impacted by problems like colorism. And the questions of the play feel far-reaching—How do we problem solve? How do we collaborate? How do we respond when we see the parts of ourselves that we don't like in other people? How do we manage that internalized hatred?