Review: WHITE PEARL at Studio Theatre

By: Nov. 12, 2019
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Review: WHITE PEARL at Studio Theatre

In a world where something viral tends to cause societal outrage on an almost daily basis, White Pearl could not be timelier. The subject of Anchuli Felicia King's play, making its US premiere at Studio Theatre, about an Asian cosmetics company whose racist ad is leaked, seems like something ripped from the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times. Ironically, the real outrage is not what happens during the play, but how King's misguided focus causes us to lose out on what could have been an important exposition of race, gender, and what going viral means in today's corporate culture.

What sets the play in motion is that an ad for a Singapore-based cosmetics company has been leaked on Youtube. High power executive Priya (Shanta Parasuraman) and press aide Sunny (Jody Doo) are coming to terms with the embarrassing leak and how to respond. Helping to manage the outcome is Japanese office manager Ruki (Resa Mishina), and rich girl turned business development specialist Built (Diana Huey). In the bathroom, digital media specialist Xiao (Jenna Zhu), who approved the ad, won't stop crying, while Chemical consultant Soo-Jin (Narea Kang) tries to comfort her.

While we never see the ad, it is described in detail, and yes it is bad. How bad? Think of the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, that bad.

In many ways, King's set-up resembles that of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, a high pressure business environment where someone's head will roll before the curtain comes down. What's both different and interesting though is King has chosen to have the characters come from different Asian countries. The result is a simmering racial tension, which could have been used to examine the role stereotypes play in business. Alas, that never really happens to our satisfaction. The first of many missed opportunities in White Pearl.

Instead, the play devolves into a series of personal vignettes wasting the gifts of a very talented ensemble. Parasuraman's character seems to only have one-level - yelling in a patronizing manner. It's hard to see how her character could have built such a successful company, given her demeanor and that she never does arrive at a resolution for dealing with the ad. Doo, whose role seems to be giving one-liners, has great comedic timing as Lee, but that's really it.

Zhu's Xiao has an interesting backstory, one that involves her family's heritage and constant surveillance by the Chinese government. This is the most fascinating subplot given the recent spat involving the NBA and censorship in China, not to mention ongoing events in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, King gives Zhu's character little exposition. Combined with Parasuraman and Lee's characters, all three suffer from under-development.

Kang's Soo-Jin appears to be the play's truth teller, and hers is the one character who seems to have the most honest grasp of what is going on. She is the one who broaches the topic of racism in Asia, presenting both a business savvy and market awareness.

The most colorful character in the play is Huey's Built. She is in business development. But what that means is unclear since she rarely is in before noon, and makes it known that her father is quite wealthy. However, when she gets a mysterious call from her ex-lover Marcel (Zachary Fall) about the ad, we can predict with some certainty that not everything is on the up and up.

Their relationship is one of perverse domination and abuse, culminating in a sexual encounter that is not to be forgotten. What's interesting is that we can never tell who, between the two, is winning. Fall's Marcel is sleazy and cunning, childlike yet dominant. When mixed with Huey's Built it is a potent emotional cocktail. Their relationship alone could be a play in itself.

What is frustrating though is that something happens in the play's climax between Built and Marcel and King brushes it off. Given the ongoing societal discussion about sex and double standards between the genders, to simply pass over the moment is not just wrong, but wholly inappropriate.

Again, I do not want to disclose what happens. But as you're watching the scene unfold, you suddenly start thinking about the events that lead to Rep. Katie Hill's recent resignation from Congress. Suddenly you're upset because here King has the ability to foster a conversation with the audience about how we judge male versus female behavior, and yet she completely throws it away.

Helping to accentuate the sense of going viral is Debra Booth's set and Rasean Davonte Johnson's projections. Sleek glass panels and all white furniture give the sense of a high octane corporate culture while a count of YouTube views for the leaked video are projected on both sides of the stage.

White Pearl is the second major production this season to explore what happens when something "goes viral." The first being The Right to be Forgotten at Arena. However, in a moment when society is grappling to deal with issues of gender-equality, race, and privacy, especially in the boardroom and elected office, White Pearl seems like the culmination of missed opportunities.

Studio Theatre's production is frustrating since both the creative and acting components of this production are stellar. The real outrage is not what happens onstage, but what doesn't. And for that, the blame lies solely with the playwright Anchuli Felicia King.

Runtime: 95 minutes with no intermission

White Pearl runs thru December 8th at Studio Theatre - 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets please call (202) 332-3300 or click here.


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