An Interview with Playwright Felicia King on “White Pearl”

White Pearl
Written by By Anchuli Felicia King
Directed by Nana Dakin

Royal Court Theatre
10 May — 15 June, 2019
Sloane Square
London SW1W 8AS
Directed by Priscilla Jackman

Sydney Theatre Company
24 October — 9 November, 2019
Lennox Theatre, Riverside Parramatta
New South Wales, Australia
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

Studio Theatre
November 6 — December 15, 2019
Milton Theatre, 1501 14th St NW
Washington, DC 20005

Interview by Diana Lu

DL: Can you tell us about yourself, how you became a playwright, where you got the idea for your play White Pearl?

FK: I am half Thai, half Australian. I grew up between Thailand and Philippines and then moved to Australia when I was quite young. My whole life has been spent as a global citizen in the broader international community with lots of other ex-pats, lots of like immigrant kids. I’ve always been really interested in global culture, and in 2016 when I started writing this play, I saw that a bunch of ads for skin whitening companies, a lot of them Thai ads, were going viral on my news feed.

I just found it really fascinating that they were now suddenly being held accountable to a global discourse on race. Growing up I’d seen ads like this all the time and there had never been this reaction. Before you could make ads in a national vacuum in a way that you couldn’t in today’s globalized world with this sort of infinite digital connectivity. That was really compelling and that’s where the play really came from for me.

DL: It’s great to see an Asian woman’s perspective on this, so we can
contextualize what happened with respect to colonization and history.
Otherwise, it’s just a Western digital audience now judging an Asian country for being backward in a way that it created in the first place.

FK: Yeah, I think one of the really interesting things about skin whitening is
that it sort of becomes this somatic lightning rod. When you talk about the skin whitening industry, you end up talking about all these different issues like the global history of colonialism. You start talking about beauty standards and the marketing of beauty myths that prey on women’s shame and insecurities, which is something that transcends culture. And you also talk about the way that social media now feeds on viralocity and cancel culture and hateful rhetoric.

All of those of those things are interrelated in this one issue. And the thing is that it’s not as simple as, you know, as Asian nations having a backwards conversation around race or around darkness, around colorism. It’s actually part of a much more fluid and complex global discourse around race that I think is very contemporaneous and very specific to our particular historical moment. People are grappling with how to live in a global society with different discourses around race and ethnicity.

It was very important to me that this play has been workshopped with Asian communities and specifically Asian theater communities all over the world. Asian communities in different countries have really different experiences. I felt like working on this play in Britain was a very different experience from working on it in Australia. In some ways it has a lot to do with waves of immigration, and a lot to do with who the dominant Asian community in a particular country is. It’s been a real gift to get to develop the play.

DL: Do you have any examples or stories from that?

FK: In Britain, for example, because of their long history with Britain, the South Asian community has probably the most cultural predominance within the Asian community. There’s actually this very strong cultural distinction in Britain between South Asians and East Asians. Like if you say Asian and Britain you tend to mean South Asian, not East Asian.

It’s interesting when you’re an Asian theater artist and you go into the
community thinking, “Oh as Western Asians, we probably have similar
experiences.” And then realizing that even the discourse within a country
within a community is really different. You have to go into it and honor that
and try and engage with people on their own terms and with their own language. That’s just like a small example. But there are, there are tons of
different examples.

Another major difference is that Australia, in terms of its geopolitical region, is actually an Asian country. It’s got very strong economic ties with Asia and geopolitically it’s sort of an Asian country. So that means that its identity and conception of itself as an Asian country is developing now, which I find really interesting. The Australian cultural discourse is now, “are we Asian and what does that mean for us?”

DL: There’s also been a strong white nationalist movement in Australia. Right? Are those two cultural shifts related? Because what’s happening as the US grapples with plurality, feels like it’s two years behind Australian discourse.

FK: Yeah, I think part of the rise of terrifying nationalism that we see all over the world right now, and specifically white nationalism is in part happening as a response to this rapid globalization. People feel displaced by it. It makes people feel uncomfortable because everything that they were told about what made them a nation state, who belonged in that nation state and who belongs in their community is being threatened by globalization.

I think those two things are interrelated and it’s happening all over the world right now. That’s why it’s more important than ever for us to be telling globalized stories, so that we can grapple with what a healthy global culture could look like as opposed to what the unhealthiest version of it looks like.

DL: Right. Yeah. You’re leading by example in a way.

FK: Yeah. I mean you have to assume of course, that art matters. Which I do.
I hope it does. Hahahaha. I think it does.

DL: Hahahahhahaha. So two questions: in terms of audience response, when you’ve been workshopping in different places, do you feel like there’s been like differences in that? And if so, like what are they?

FK: This play has been very divisive and I think that’s great. I think that
depending on who you are, what age group you are, where you come from,
what ethnicity you identify as, your entry point to the play will be very different, and that’s led to a lot of different responses.

The one thing that has been heartening, and I’ve experienced everywhere, is that the Asian diaspora, the third culture kids, people who are second or third generation immigrants have come up to me thanking me for representing so many versions of Asianness in a single piece of art.

Certainly it’s quite rare to see complicated cultural identities being represented within “Asian.” My characters aren’t just Singaporean or Indian or Asian American. They’re idiosyncratic individuals who come from a hodgepodge of different cultures and I think that that’s really resonated with a lot of Asian audiences.

DL: And it’s focused on women too. That’s also rare.

FK: Yeah. It’s nice that you have like one white male character and he is not
at all a driving force.

DL: It’s so many different kinds of Asian women and a white guy, and none of the women are fawning over him, they’re just working around him trying to get to their goals. Your work actually presents these women as complex, imperfect people and that is sadly rare.

FK: Yeah, it speaks to a scarcity that we have in our representation of
ourselves right now, which is really sad. I think that the barometer on that is slowly shifting and in the next couple of years we’ll see an explosion of art by Asian people that represents us in, in fuller, more embodied, more complex, richer ways. But I feel quite lucky to be at a historical moment where the play is resonating with people because they feel that absence.

DL: For sure. How did you become an artist? You’re not just a writer, you’re a performer, you do stage craft. You do everything and that’s amazing. How did you get the courage or the audacity, in this absence of role models, to just go balls to the walls like you have?

FK: Hahahahahaha that’s a really difficult question to answer. I’ve always
been a compulsive artist, ever since I was a kid. It was never really a question of “will I make art?” It was more like, “can I make money at it?

Will my parents let me? And is it something that will be useful to society?”
I just kept compulsively making art and I went to school and I studied it. And then I went to grad school and I studied it some more. And all the time I was doing a gazillion jobs and trying to make my parents happy and thinking, “if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go to teaching or I’ll do a PhD or something.” I always had a backup plan, like a good Asian kid.

Then at a certain point playwrighting emerged as the thing I get to do full time. I feel quite lucky. It’s quite a rare privilege to actually have the universe be say, “this is the path for you and you get to do this for a living.”

DL: That’s great! Do you have any thoughts about the future of globalization, how you see it evolving and the role of art in shaping that?

FK: Yeah. In spite of all of the terrible, disastrous things I see going on in the
world all the time around me, I remain staunchly optimistic that we’ll develop some semblance of a globalized culture. It’s is a necessity. We can’t exist as global citizens until we have some sort of shared cultural understanding.

It’s my hope that over the next decade, as communication gets exponentially faster, that we will find better and better ways of representing what our global community looks like and reflecting that back onto ourselves in healthy ways and not divisive ways. That’s something that art and technology can help us to do. I think it’s going to rely on much more than that, but I hope that there will be defining works that bring together a global community.

DL: It’s refreshing to hear such a positive perspective. A lot of the current
nationalism is just the negative reaction. When anything changes, people
want to sink in their heels and resist. It’s better do what you’re suggesting, to be mindful of changes but let them happen and evolve.

FK: Yeah. And I think, it’s so easy to get disheartened by everything that we
see going on in the world. But I think that globalization is an imminent and
economic reality that we have to grapple with. Globalization is only going to
keep accelerating. Technology will only keep accelerating. So the only thing
we can do is hope that we develop a culture and a politics that can handle it. We have no other alternative. It’s a necessity.

DL: In terms of like how that culture is being developed, do you feel like
corporate art or media, like Clearday’s commercials in White Pearl, is helping or hindering, and how do you as an artist respond or try to change that?

FK: That’s a really good question. To me, the biggest threat that corporations pose to a healthy democracy or a healthy global politics is that their
mechanisms become ossified or obtuse. That we can’t perceive what the corporations are doing to our social political discourse or we can’t perceive what corporations are doing to our culture. And what artists are really good at is highlighting the ways that corporations are corrupting discourses or highlighting that corporations in fact are just human beings beholden to morally, tenuous, greedy imperatives.

I would hope that artists can help by poking holes at the myths corporations
like to tell about themselves. So that we can see what they’re doing. That’s also what satire is really good at, simplifying what are often very heady ideas that corporations hide behind and saying, “no, the simple truth is that you monetize women’s shame or you engage in unethical practices or you’re purely driven by profit over your civic duty.” In some ways art is one of the best ways of doing that because we can simplify discourses in a way that’s more easily accessible to the general public.

DL: Thank you so much for chatting with me. Are you working on other
pieces? Are there more premiers that you have coming up?

FK: I have a play at American Shakespeare center, in Stanton, Virginia. It’s all about unrecognized geniuses of color and historically white discourses. It’s a play I’m really proud of and excited to do. It’s our response play to the white Shakespearian cannon. I’ll be doing that in the fall of 2020. That’s the only one I’m allowed to talk about.

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