The bad romance at the heart of Studio Theatre’s ‘White Pearl’

An explicit Q&A with Actors Diana Huey and Zachary Fall about their explosive scenes in Anchuli Felicia King’s dark comedy.

Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl is a hilarious, fast-paced satire set in the Singapore office of a cosmetics startup called Clearday that sells skin-whitening cream to Asian women. As the play begins, the six Asian women who work at Clearday face a public-relations catastrophe: an anti-Black advertisement for the company’s product White Pearl has been leaked and gone viral.

During the ensuing frenzy, one of the women, the valley-girl-ish Built, gets a call on her cell. Her swaggering French ex, Marcel, is in the lobby, and he wants to see her. There the two have a scene together that blew me away. Later they have another scene together, in a bathroom stall. It was even more explosive.

Diana Huey (Built) and Zachary Fall (Marcel) in ‘White Pearl.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

As I watched White Pearl, I sensed that those two scenes between Built and Marcel were contributing to the impact of the play in a really interesting way. They seemed to function like a subplot, a play within the play, affecting and reflecting the meaning of the whole play.

Curious to follow up on that notion, I had a chance to talk with the actors who perform those two mind-blowing scenes—Diana Huey and Zachary Fall. I first asked them about…

Their characters

John: It’s very clear in the script and in your performances who your characters are to each other. Who are your characters to yourselves? 

Zachary Fall (Marcel) in ‘White Pearl.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Zachary: To me Marcel is someone who would consider himself a desperate romantic and passionate, but he’s also that sort of macho French that I see a lot, that I know a lot, and that really irritates me. He’s not someone I would particularly like.

Diana: Yeah, he’s difficult..

Zachary: Yeah.

But he’s someone you’ve seen in life. 

Zachary: He’s very close to some people I have met and have known and still know sometimes through the occasional Facebook argument. Some of them are even in theater, in the artistic scene, which always surprises me because I tend to imagine those people as being open-minded, super left-wing-progressive. And yet you sometimes find yourself faced with someone who thinks the MeToo movement is bull crap and thinks that men are men and women are women and each have their role and all that stuff.

So in life you would have judgments on this character, but you have to be this character.  

Zachary: Yeah, I do. I have to embrace his madness.

Diana, who is Built to you? 

Diana Huey (Built) in ‘White Pearl.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Diana: She’s very blasé when reading the Buzzfeed article [about the racist advertising video that has gone viral]. Like, I’m just going to laugh this off ’cause else what are we gonna do? She was very clear, like, Oh, my daddy pays for everything. And that’s probably how she got the job, through some connection from her father. But for the past couple years or so, this is the first time that she’s actually really worked hard and has been good at something. Then this tumultuous ex boyfriend comes back and blows it all up. And it’s so maddening, ’cause it’s like, I finally did something in my life and you’re taking it away from me. For the first time, this selfish airheaded girl who has been given everything, finally works for something and it’s taken away, which is just the worst and is why she’s so unhinged around Marcel.

 

Their backstory

There once had to have been a romance between your two characters.

Diana: Absolutely. I think they were definitely passionately—

Zachary:very passionately—

Diana: —in love with each other. That’s what Des [Director Desdemona Chiang] was working a lot in rehearsals: to find the thing that was so attractive about that person, that electric spark that made them both so desperately in love with each other.

Zachary: Even today parts of you are like, Oh, he’s hot, I hate him.

Diana: I hate him. Yeah, exactly.

Zachary: And then he’s like, Omygod you broke my heart, I love you so much. I want you back.

Diana: They’ve probably broken up and gotten back together and broken up and gone back together.

Zachary: Yes. 

Diana: This was a very regular thing, which is why she’s like very clearly: I am done. There is no game. I’m not playing with you anymore. Like I’m actually done. No more. 

Zachary: And in his mind it’s like, No, it’s like the other times.

Diana: That’s like what we always do, cat and mouse and then have electric sex and then keep going and then break up— 

Zachary: Yeah.

Diana: —the cycle.

Their rehearsal process

Talk about how you rehearsed your roles and your two scenes, the first in the lobby and the second in a bathroom.

Zachary: Thankfully from the get-go when we met, we hit it off really well and we immediately started bantering.

Diana: Yeah. We’re always sparring, just constantly.

Zachary: Always.

Diana: Always.

Zachary: Always.

[Laughter.] 

Diana: Like, that’s just the way we’ve been from the beginning. So that works.

Zachary: Yeah, that works. And that meant that when we then got into the [rehearsal] room and had to start being mean and aggressive to each other, we felt completely safe and secure and comfortable.

Diana: Comfortable, yeah. We’d already established that quick rapport and one upping of each other.

Zachary: Whenever we’d try something new we’d check with the other one, but most of the time it was like, Yeah, just go for it.

There’s a lot of aggressive physicality in your scenes— 

Diana: Absolutely.

—some really hard-to-watch physical moments. You have to have a basis of trust to work that out.

Zachary: Yes.

Diana: Definitely.

Zachary: If we didn’t have this relationship, we would have had to approach it very differently and much more carefully.

Diana: It would just have been more work. It was strangely very, very easy.

Zachary: Yeah.

What kind of direction did the director give you for your two scenes?

Diana: Mostly it would have been about technical things like blocking and the physicality and stuff. But as far as the gritty gross relationship, Des just let us try things and it slowly developed.

Zachary: Because in the second scene, Built was given so much more physical power over him and she was on top of that battle, Des wanted in the first scene for Marcel to have more of the physical, domineering side. She wanted Marcel to have moments of physical dominance over Built to make the switch in the second scene even bigger.

Diana: Yeah.

What were the biggest challenges in finding these characters and performing those scenes? 

Diana: I mean, they’re both so ugly.

Zachary: Yeah, there’s some pretty nasty things in both.

Diana: Whenever I’m the meaner person, like grabbing you by the balls, the only way I can do it is to think about how much you screwed me over and how much I hate you and how much you took away from me. And that’s like to justify her complete insanity.

Zachary: It’s allowing yourself to give into that violence and anger that you normally know to channel and you know that’s not a thing you do.

Diana: Right.

Zachary: But you have to acknowledge and embrace that those characters will go there.

Their scenes

I’ve noticed that a lot of reviewers don’t seem to know what to make of your two scenes so they give them short shrift and only pay attention to the rest of the play. But the Built-Marcel storyline has a major function in the power of White Pearl. Marcel precipitates the crisis that kicks off the play. And the Built-Marcel subplot obviously shapes the main plot. But thematically there’s something more nuanced and resonant going on.

The other scenes in the play are about “big themes”—racism, the beauty industry, corporate greed, global capitalism—and much of the buzz about White Pearl has justifiably been about those topics. But your scenes are distinct. The playwright has made your two scenes more than one sixth of the play. I counted the pages. 

Diana: Wow.

You didn’t know that. 

Diana: Nope.

Zachary: Didn’t count it, no.

The playwright made your two scenes very important to the play. She meant them to be very significant. And interestingly, those two scenes don’t touch at all on the big themes running through the play. Their focus is solely on this one woman and this one man—this independent woman exec and her crazy, scary ex—and the sexual politics of their relationship.

Zachary: Yeah.

This bad romance from hell. 

 Diana: Yeah. We’re focused on our relationship; it’s not about Clearday, it’s not about White Pearl, the ad.

It’s not about Asia, it’s not about racism, it’s totally sexual-political dark comedy.

Zachary: Yeah.

Diana: Hm-hm.

It’s very specific. But it also has a universality that I think is the intention of what those scenes are doing. 

Zachary and Diana: Yeah. Right.

They’re like every bad romance. 

Zachary: One of the things that’s brought up in Marcel’s monologue is the white man working in Asia and how there’s a lot of white models who are hired for a lot of Asian magazines. And when Felicia was talking about Marcel’s looks, she brought up that when he walks in we want people to think, Oh, the colonizer is here. That’s one of the aspects that is brought up through that character, but it’s quite subtle.

Very.

Zachary: Mostly it plays on the gender dynamics.

Here’s this play set inside a company called Clearday, whose founder says: “Women need whitening cream, women need beauty products in general, because women—all women—hate the way they look. They hate themselves.” And the subtext is, Use our beauty product to be desirable, to meet a man.

Diana: Right.

Jody Doo, Diana Huey, Resa Mishina, and Shanta Parasuraman in ‘White Pearl.’ Photo bt Teresa Wood.

And plopped into the middle of this storyline about the marketing of beauty is this story about this woman’s really horrible relationship with a man. When Built gives graphic instances of what Marcel did to her, the script leaves no doubt she’s telling the truth. 

Zachary: That’s a literal description.

Marcel says she’s exaggerating. But the playwright means for us to believe Built.

Diana: Yeah, that’s a literal description of what happened. 

Zachary: He says that because he romanticizes it his mind. 

Diana:  And in rehearsals, I’d be like, ’Cause you’re totally crazy. And he’s like, Am I crazy or am I passionate? 

 Zachary: The way the ads sell the product is by making it about beauty. It’s about being more desirable. In the advert [the racist Clearday video], there’s this fickle guy who just keeps switching from one girl to the other depending on her looks and how white she is. And then in comes this a-hole [Marcel], this horrible man who himself seems to be quite fickle.

A real-life drama.

Zachary: He comes here on a whim, completely out of impulse, and creates this big mess. 

Diana: Before we started rehearsals, I started reading through the reviews from the London production, and a lot of those reviews were like, Oh, in the less-interesting storyline— That was a big thing in London, as well as the Sydney production. They were saying the stakes weren’t high and why is this here?

Zachary: The stakes are very high. 

Diana: I’m screaming and I’m livid in those scenes and like, the stakes aren’t high?!

Zachary: And he’s putting himself at risk professionally, financially, and emotionally because he’s there knowing what the relationship can be and not knowing how she’s going to react. There are huge stakes for both of them, all while playing on the gender dynamics.

What would you most like people to pay attention to in your two scenes? What would you like people to notice and to get? 

Zachary: One thing that infuriates me in this character is the machismo, the completely assumed machismo and sense of righteousness that he’s definitely in the right. The toxic romanticization of the guy chasing the girl no matter what, no means yes, and all that stuff. That’s basically the mentality he lives on. It comes from all those toxic masculinity backgrounds.

Diana: I think it’s so interesting that there’s one male character in the play—one white guy among six Asian women—and he’s not the hero.

Zachary: Oh, no.

Diana:  It’s not like practically every other story, where Here’s the white guy to save the day. 

Zachary: He’s the crazy ex.

Diana:  He’s the crazy ex. And he has this white savior complex—like, Come on, baby, I’ll take care of you like I always do.

Zachary: I may create the problem, but I can also solve it.

Diana: Watch me clean it all up and I’ll save you from the thing that I did. 

Zachary: When you think of the various wars in the past few years, it’s like, I’m going to create this huge conflict. 

Diana: Yep.

Zachary: And then I’m going to solve it for you and I’m going to be—

Diana: And I’m going to be the good guy, look what I did. I think it’s so great to finally have this play that’s written by an Asian woman directed by an Asian woman starring Asian women. And it’s not about a white male who, you know—

Zachary: He’s the problem, not the solution.

Diana: He’s the problem, yeah.

____

Zachary Fall and Diana Huey at Studio Theatre November 16, 2019. Photo: DCMTA.

Diana Huey most notably played Ariel in the first National Tour of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, where she made international headlines for facing racism over her casting as an Asian-American actor and her activism for diversity in the arts. Other favorite productions include Kim in Miss Saigon at the Signature Theatre and Flatrock Playhouse, Sherrie in Rock of Ages at the 5th Avenue Theatre, Kira in Xanadu at Hangar Theatre, and originating the role of Spider in Pasek and Paul’s James And The Giant Peach at Seattle Children’s Theatre.  She has also appeared on TNT’s Leverage and Netflix’s It’s Bruno!. Diana is the proud recipient of a Helen Hayes Award for Miss Saigon and a Gregory Award for The Little Mermaid.

Zachary Fall recently appeared in the award-winning Subject Mater at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Other UK stage credits include Tartuffe at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End, a trilogy of Tennessee Williams plays entitled Kingdom of Earth at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, and Jean Anouilh’s Antigone at the Barons Court Theatre. French stage credits include Richard III with La Manufacture touring France and Switzerland and Dans La Foule with Adesso e Sempre (currently in pre-production). Television credits include PoldarkVersaillesGenius: PicassoGuiltCrossing Lines, Immortality, and Reinas. Film and gaming credits include AlliesThe Division 2, and A Plague Tale: Innocence. His production company, Woven Voices, won a Scotsman Fringe First Award for their production of Subject Mater. Zachary received a BA in Acting from the Drama Centre London.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

EXTENDED: White Pearl plays through December 15, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-332-3300 or go online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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