After COVID-19 forced the cancellation of OzAsia’s live program in 2020, it is set to return from October 21 to November 7 this year with what new artistic director Annette Shun Wah describes as “the most significant showcase of contemporary Asian Australian artists that’s ever been seen”.

As a taste of what’s to come, details were released today of several events. They include pianist Belle Chen’s Destinations, a show using electric keys, synthesizers and visual installations which will have its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre, and a comedy special featuring performers such as Lawrence Leung, Nina Oyama and Jason Chong.

There will also be a new writing and ideas program, In Other Words, to be hosted by former Adelaide Writers’ Week director Laura Kroetsch with guest curators Benjamin Law and Roanna Gonsalves.

A theatre highlight will be White Pearl, a satire written by Thai-Australian multi-disciplinary artist Anchuli Felicia King about a start-up skincare company in Singapore called Clearday whose new television commercial for its range of “White Pearl” skin-whitening creams is leaked online and goes viral for the wrong reasons.

King is a rising star of the theatre world and this will be the first work she has presented in Adelaide. White Pearl was her debut play and had its world premiere at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2019, the same year the then 25-year-old was Patrick White Fellow at Sydney Theatre Company and also had two other new plays (Golden Shield and Slaughterhouse) produced in Australia.

Writer and projection designer Anchuli Felicia King. Photo: Monique Harmer

She tells InReview the idea for White Pearl was sparked when she was doing her masters in New York and saw advertisements going viral online because they were deemed to be racially insensitive.

“I thought it was really interesting because I’d seen a lot of insensitive ads, particularly for whitening creams, growing up in Thailand and the Philippines, and I found it fascinating that now there was an online backlash because we were having a global conversation about race.”

Reviewers have variously described White Pearl as hilarious, daring and “bracingly funny”. King herself says it is a dark corporate comedy which uses whitening cream as “a thematic lightning rod” to explore a range of themes including toxic corporate culture (particularly millennial start-up culture), intra-Asian racism and “the ongoing legacy of anti-black racism in a bunch of Asian countries”, and the values of the cosmetics/beauty industry.

She sees laughter as a good way to get people to face uncomfortable realities, especially around race and identity politics.

“A lot of the comedy of the play centres on this spiralling crisis and the increasingly extreme lengths that the characters go to to do damage control.

“Each of the characters is very specific and idiosyncratic – they’re all Asian women but they come from very different backgrounds and have very different experiences and cultural values.”

King, who is also a sound and projection designer, created the video design for White Pearl. The play uses digital projections showing the climbing number of views on the viral skin-cream ad and YouTube comments to illustrate that the “live analogue disaster” in the office is unfolding against a bigger online cataclysm.

One of the reasons she wanted to write the play was because she believes the online world isn’t well suited to nuanced discussions about issues of identity and race: “I write plays to try to take a more macrocosmic lens of this and try and discuss these issues with more subtlety and complexity.”

King started out doing indie theatre in Melbourne, but told ABC Arts in a 2019 interview that she moved to New York to do her masters because she couldn’t get work in Australia and didn’t think there was a place for her in a country where main-stage theatre was a “largely white, male, auteur-centric space”.

Speaking to InReview now, she says that ­– to a certain extent – ­things have improved since then, although structural inequity across the entertainment industry needs to be addressed to ensure long-term change.

“There’s definitely been a renewed investment in more equity and inclusion on Australian stages and an investment in our own playwrights, but at the same time I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of not having such a Eurocentric culture… not constantly doing the same Western classics and not importing our plays from the US and the UK.”

White Pearl features a range of idiosyncratic characters from different backgrounds.

White Pearl is scheduled for a return season with Sydney Theatre Company in July (after its sell-out premiere season in 2019) and will be presented at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Dunstan Playhouse over several nights from October 20 during the OzAsia Festival. King – who did this interview while in lockdown in Melbourne – says she hopes to get to Adelaide, “pandemic permitting”.

“I’ve always loved coming to see shows and going to festivals in Adelaide; I think you have a really literate theatre audience so I’m very excited for the show to be seen by Adelaide audiences.”

Annette Shun Wah says the OzAsia events announced today are just a taste of what’s to come when the full festival program is released in early August.

“We have so many world-class performers right here in Australia, and these first few shows that we’re announcing today are just the tip of an iceberg that includes world premieres and collaborations featuring some of Australia’s most respected artists alongside exciting new voices.”

White Pearl will be presented at the Dunstan Playhouse from October 20-23. See the OzAsia Festival website for more details of all the early-release shows.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.