Anchuli Felicia King: ‘What I love about theatre is that it’s innately communal’

Anchuli Felicia King is a theatre practitioner of Thai-Australian descent. As a writer, creative consultant and sound and projection designer, the 25-year-old has worked with companies including Punchdrunk, PlayCo and Roundabout Theatre. She will have three playwriting premieres this year: White Pearl, which opens at the Royal Court in London on Friday; Golden Shield at the Melbourne Theatre Company (12 Aug-14 Sept); and Slaughterhouse at 25A in Sydney (16 Oct-2 Nov).

Your international playwriting debut at the Royal Court, White Pearl, is about a fictional cosmetics company’s advert for a skin-lightening cream facing a global backlash. What drew you to that subject?
Around the time I was writing the play in 2016, a bunch of ads for skin lightening products went viral in the US; people were shocked by them. But growing up in Thailand and the Philippines, I saw them all the time. It struck me that you can’t create in a national vacuum any more. You’re responsible to an international audience.

The company, Clearday, is based in Singapore. Why did you choose Singapore particularly?
Great drama comes from liminal spaces. Singapore is a centre of nexuses: it’s a cultural melting pot, it has a long colonial legacy, it’s part of the English-speaking world but rarely seen on the English-speaking stage. It’s the perfect setting for a millennial Asian corporate black comedy!

You often explore the human farce and drama behind big corporations. What is it about them that intrigues you?
It’s human farce, but also the human cost of mass irresponsible globalisation, and inherited cultural trauma. All of my plays are about rapid globalisation and rapid digitalisation.

Is rapid digitalisation and the rise of social media a broadly good or broadly bad thing?
Any new technology will have upside and downsides. We need to be engaging with the human agency behind the way these things are built and implemented. Social media platforms aren’t faceless monoliths; there are people behind them, making decisions about how they should work. What I’m trying to show, through metaphor, is what the system is doing to us as a whole, rather than on the level of individual interaction.

Has your mixed-race heritage influenced your work?
Hugely. I spent my childhood and adolescence between Thailand, the Philippines and Australia, so I’ve moved around a lot. I’ve lived in global microcosms all my life – I went to international schools – and I like to think about what staging a “global community” might look like. My family are all very “globalised”: my dad is a global climate change scientist and my twin sister works for the World Trade Organization. She calls us globalist cucks.

The cast of White Pearl: (back row, l-r): Kanako Nakano, Kae Alexander; (front row, l-r): Katie Leung, Minhee Yeo, Farzana Dua Elahe, Momo Yeung. Photograph: Helen Murray

Should artists of colour be prioritising their identities in their art?
It’s a double-edged sword. I believe in visibility; having diverse bodies and identities on stage is really powerful, and I’ve always been keen to do press and outreach as a result. But I’m aware of the ways that I’m programmed and seen. I think individual artists have to draw their own boundaries, and constantly reframe the discourse around their work.

You’ve worked on almost every other aspect of stagecraft. Has it been hard to hand those things over to other people?
Not at all. What I love about theatre is that it’s innately communal. You could micromanage, but where’s the fun in that? Although I have to admit, being functionally a full-time playwright has been a novel experience for me.

What’s the team behind White Pearl like?
They’re amazing. It’s been incredible to work with [director] Nana Dakin. We have women of colour, particularly east Asian women, working in every single department. I think we’re doing something important. Both in the process of the making, and in creating an infrastructure that will mean we can keep making this work.

You live between New York, London and Melbourne. Which is the best city?
I can’t choose! My friends in each city will kill me if I pick one… What I will say is that they’re all really good cities to be vegan.

You’ve recently won a commission from the American Shakespeare Center, as part of their Shakespeare’s new contemporaries project. What will that entail?
It’s a broad commission; you write something that interacts with and responds to the canon. My play Keene responds to Othello, and it will be coming in 2020.

White Pearl is at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London, from 10 May to 12 June

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