It's been two and a half years since Anchuli Felicia King's play White Pearl had its opening season in Sydney, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Now, as the production gets underway with another run in Sydney and Canberra, King believes it's more timely than ever — and its punchy message will hit audiences differently.
Six young Asian women are front and centre in the dark comedy as they deal with the aftermath of a publicity stunt gone wrong. Once an ad for a new skin-whitening cream at a leading Asian cosmetics company is leaked, the business makes global headlines for all the wrong reasons and it's up to these women to get the situation under control.
"I think post-Black Lives Matter or post-pandemic, with the conversations that we're having about racial equity and about colourism within diaspora communities, it just feels more timely to be doing this play now than ever," King tells Refinery29 Australia.
"Particularly the discourse in the play about online cancel culture and language and powers related to #wokepolitics," she adds. "I just feel like even though I wrote the play coming up on six years now, it somehow feels more timely than ever. So I'm really excited for people to get to see it in this historical moment."
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the internet hasn't shied away from calling people out. Social media movements like the viral Pull Up for Change campaign and Nina Davuluri's End Colourism petition, for example, have held beauty and fashion companies accountable when it comes to diversity transparency in hiring, corporate stances on racism and the beauty standards perpetuated by their products.
Whitening creams have unquestionably been at the centre of this. In 2020, consumer goods manufacturer Unilever announced that it would rename its skin whitening product, ‘Fair & Lovely’ in order to be a more “inclusive vision of beauty”. The product is primarily sold in India, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Middle East.
Johnson & Johnson also announced it would discontinue two lines of its skin-lightening products — 'Neutrogena Fine Fairness', which was sold in Asia and the Middle East, and 'Clean & Clear Fairness', which was sold in India.
King started writing White Pearl back in 2016, after observing the whitewashed beauty standards among Asian communities and how the internet was starting to slowly cancel brands that tried to capitalise on this.
"I saw all of these ads for whitening creams going viral for being deemed racially offensive," says the playwright, who moved to Australia when she was eight.
King wanted her production to examine the rise of political correctness on the web and whether it's a place that adequately serves these conversations and does these issues justice.
"I grew up in Thailand and the Philippines where fairer skin being prized over darker skin was an unquestioned beauty standard. Whitening products were in everything.
"And what I found really interesting is that now in the age of globalisation and digitisation, we were suddenly being asked to have a global conversation about race and about racial beauty standards, but equally, we're doing it on a platform that isn't particularly suited to nuanced conversations about the legacy of colonialism and the different histories of whiteness in different countries."
"I think post Black Lives Matter or post pandemic, with the conversations that we're having about racial equity and about colourism within diaspora communities, it just feels more timely to be doing this play now than ever."
anchuli felicia king
King says that theatre has been the perfect way to communicate her thoughts about these concepts.
"Online we are so quick to outrage, that we don't often take a step back and examine the deeper ethical and moral issues at play in any given cancelling event," she explains.
"And I think one of the reasons that I'm really drawn to talking about these issues in theatre is that it's this aggressively analogue art form where you have to turn off all your devices, get away from the internet and come sit in space, in community together, and grapple with the moral implications of the culture that we found ourselves in."
True to this, White Pearl is a play for show-goers who are willing to rid themselves of distractions and immerse themselves in the incredibly thought-provoking production that it is.
White Pearl continues at Sydney Theatre Company until April 23, before playing at The Playhouse Theatre in Canberra from April 27 to April 30, and then at Riverside Theatre in Parramatta (Sydney) from May 5 to May 7.