Royal Court Theatre, London – until 15 June 2019
It is useful, if dismaying, to be reminded that skin-based racism is not exclusive to Western European bigots. In Small Island Andrea Levy pinpointed the depressing belief among traditional West Indians that a lighter skin in ‘better’. Now in this mischievous satirical 85-minute blast by Anchuli Felicia King – she’s Australian-Thai, as is the director Nana Dakin – we see a corporate crisis in a Singaporean cosmetics firm marketing a skin-whitening cream. We also plunge into tensions between different Asian communities and attitudes.
Someone, we discover after a panicky exchange between the assertive MD Priya and the press officer Sunny, has OK’d a new commercial for the cream. It is snortingly racist. A girl is jilted for a whiter-skinned one, uses the cream and gets him back; her rival becomes suddenly black, with an Afro and hip-hop soundtrack. Slogan – “Only works on inner beauty.”
Someone – we find out who, and very funny it is too – has leaked the video online, and the hits and criticisms are mounting tens of thousands at a time on screens upstage. Two other staffers are seen overhead in the ladies’ lavatory: Chinese Xiao, youngest and most vulnerable, is sobbing in fear of the sack. “This is not a joke for me. In China people disappear.”
The row uncovers not only more corporate dodginess but, blisteringly, the unspoken differences between the six women (the only man is a troublemaking boyfriend, Arty Froushan hilarious as French Marcel). Boss Priya is of Indian heritage but thoroughly Anglicised; Sunny is Americanised Chinese, her dude-bro language when excited shading back to Singlish/Hokkien.
Also Americanised is Built, Thai-Californian. The company’s chemist is Soo-Jin, who is South Korean; the other less-westernised “homelanders” are Chinese Xiao and Japanese Ruki. In a brief flashback we see them discussing how all women want to be whiter : “South Asians got the whole caste thing…Thai women wanna look like Korean women…Korean women wanna look like dolls..”
But Ruki brilliantly point out that while women want whiteness they are a bit ashamed of wanting it, so instead they should claim “Makes your skin clear and bright”. As a universal, hilarious swipe at female insecurity and pretences, it is superb. Hoots from the audience. More shocked ones when they discuss the Western outrage at the ad , and Soo-Jin blithely points out that “negroes” are not their customers . “We do not want to be seen as saying yes to American PC culture..where we sell, Thailand, China, Philippines…ordinary Asians, they still think that blacks are dirty, smell bad, are criminals… so we do not want to be siding with the blacks..In America you have Beyonce, Oprah, Obama. In Asia the blacks are poor, immigrant, they are homeless, they commit many crimes – ”
Priya and Sunny wince – we all do – but the Korean blithely continues that “Indians and Middle Easterns” smell bad too, which freaks out Priya, until the Korean chemist reassures her that it’s OK, “You wear a lot of deodorant and do not eat spices” . It is shocking, it is funny, it is the best exchange of insulting mutual incomprehension and tactlessness since Clybourne Park.
It is also useful. We need reminding that our sensitivities about race are new, and made of historic guilt as much as any real decency. When Korean Soo-Jin is comforting the weeping Chinese Xiao in the privacy of the lav, they covertly agree that the ad is OK with them. “Why they take it so serious? It is like they cannot understand when joke is joke. It is not some big politics whatever. It is just fun ad. Now the whole world is going crazy…” ”Asia will not go crazy. We’ll be fine” .
The relationships are as beautifully worked out as the business manoeuvrings, embracing both hostility and affections. The finale is glorious, and taught me Asian insults in several languages. The author warns us that it is a hellish difficult play to cast, but the Court triumphs: here’s to Kae Alexander, Farzana Dua Elahe, Katie Leung, Kanako Nakano, Minhee Yeo and Momo Yeung. Five mice, because it’s different and clever and useful, and horribly good fun.
box office 020 7565 5000 to 15 June