Monsters of Capitalism: Anchuli Felicia King's White Pearl

Early morning. Singapore. The headquarters of Clearday Cosmetics. An ad for their latest skin-whitening cream leaked on YouTube a few hours ago, it’s racking up views and media interest for its shocking racist set-up and imagery, and CEO Priya Singh knows her job: Stop the story before the US market opens. As Priya leads her team through damage control (how to get the ad down, who’s taking the fall, how to appease the disgust of the West without alienating the customers across Asia who will think that it’s funny), Anchuli Felica King’s brash and bleak comedy White Pearl raises questions about large-scale systems—global capitalism, beauty standards, corporate culture—and the individuals trying to ride the riptides.

King began writing the play in 2016, after two ads for skin-whitening creams and another for laundry detergent went viral on YouTube for their shocking anti-Blackness: in the ad for the Chinese laundry detergent, a light-skinned Chinese woman puts a Black actor into a washing machine, who then emerges played by a light-skinned Chinese man and the object of her romantic interest. These ads prompted international outrage and think pieces—about the legacy of British anti-Blackness in China and the hypocrisy of the West objecting to racist imagery while perpetuating racist social structures.

Several things about the coverage struck King, who is Thai and Australian and was raised in the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia before moving to the United States for graduate school in 2015. The first is that she grew up seeing ads like these all the time to essentially no outcry and that businesses no longer operate inside a national vacuum; global connectivity has changed the rules for corporations. The second thing that occurred to her that skin-whitening creams offered  a way to comment on the money being made in selling whiteness as the beauty standard, a phenomenon King sees around the world. The final thing these ads and their controversy offered King was an opportunity to write about capitalism and complex Asian characters, and a way to trouble Western images of Asian cultures and people as a monolith of ‘Asianness’.

The management team at Clearday is comprised of six Asian women with different home countries, backgrounds, and relationships to the English language. They are all under 35. They are all ambitious, successful, flawed, and occasionally quite unsympathetic. “I have never seen dislikeable Asian female characters [on stage]: Asian female characters who are problematic, have jagged edges, who are like monsters of capitalism,” says King, who’s also interested in looking at these characters’ ambition and relative youth. “It’s a play about millennial corporate culture as well—the sort of ad-hoc utopianism of it, the lies that millennial corporations tell themselves about their ethics.”

And where better to center a play about the power of whiteness at a distance and capitalism up close than the city-state Singapore, with its complex relationship to capitalist success and social control? “I’m interested in dealing with the intersection of a rapidly accelerating digital and global economy and how that interacts with the legacy of colonialism,” says King. “Singapore is a utopian version of Asianness—like South Korea, Thailand, India—places that have eaten the Western capitalism thing and shat out this insane hyperactive version of it, where wealth inequality is so profound.”  

The play delves into racist legacies of colonialism and the ease some of its characters have with anti-Blackness (“Blacks in Asia are not the same as Blacks in America," the character’s argument begins.)  But for the big-T themes ricocheting around White Pearl, it’s a play that lands its jokes. The dialogue is taut and rhythmic; the characters are sharply sketched and play to type. If some of the dynamics are specific to non-American sensibilities, its corporate-speak is an accessible phenomenon across the globe, and the shame that fuels the beauty industry is a common language. Late-stage capitalism is gruesome and unforgiving—and so are some of these characters—but the play is as smart as it is grotesque, honoring the complexities of its characters’ identities and motivations without hesitating to call them out.

In this utopian capitalist all-female workplace, which Priya runs as an “alternative to Asian corporate culture. Which is just—it’s just so toxic”, power seems lodged in the perfection of certain monstrous behaviors—the best English, the most ruthless takedown, the most aggressive behavior. But the play also challenges the dominance of dominating, and as Priya slashes and burns through her staff and their goodwill to protect her brand and livelihood, other alliances—some forged in actual kindness, some growing from a kinship in facilities with language outside the clipped English of monolingual Priya’s education—suggest an alternative to the brutalities of Clearday’s capitalism.

Because in the end, King says, her generation, the millennials, aren’t quite the pessimists they sometimes play. “I write pessimistic plays, but they’re not pessimistic about human beings; they’re pessimistic about conditions. Our generation feels the real disjunct between the glossy utopian surface and the reality of our daily lives. How can you be human in this world?”

Adrien-Alice Hansel