How did you get into playwriting?
I studied dramaturgy at Columbia and I thought I was going to be what I had been in Australia – sort of a jack of all trades, doing a bunch of different things. One of the great things about the dramaturgy program in Columbia is you have to take a bunch of different classes and try different types of writing. Playwriting was one of the classes, and I just really loved it. We had a great teacher, so I sort of caught the bug then, and have been writing ever since. But I really didn't think I was going to be a full time playwright; that's only really arisen in the past year.
What was the first play you wrote at Columbia?
I wrote this one act – it wasn't a really play it was only 60 minutes or something – called Orientalism. I am very embarrassed about it and I hope that it never sees the light of day! I also performed in it. I was a wide-eyed 22 year old, moving to New York for the first time, and I thought I knew everything. So I hope that play gets buried. But White Pearl was my first full-length play.
It's based on the 2016 cosmetic bleaching scandal...
So a bunch of skin whitening ads came out. For example this laundry detergent ad from China was pretty egregious. It was like, you put a black guy in a washing machine and he emerges as a Chinese guy. A whole slate of these went viral in 2016. I remember finding it really fascinating because I grew up moving between Thailand and the Philippians, I grew up watching them. So it was really interesting to me that they were inciting all this global outrage and you had to be accountable to the global discourse around race. I started working on the play in 2016, while I was still in grad school.
How come you moved so much?
My dad is a climate change scientist so he has to be in a different county every week basically. But I spent my childhood primarily between Thailand and the Philippians: I would spend half the year in each space, and then when I was around nine I moved to Australia and that's where I spent most of my life. I went to school there and my undergrad was at the University of Melbourne and then I moved to New York after that.
I went to boarding school with international students. Every person on my corridor was from a different country
Presumably your peripatetic upbringing informed your writing a fair bit?
It's informed my life so it's informed my writing. I've always lived in these international microcosms – in Australia I went to boarding school with mostly international students. We'd have a corridor and every single person on that corridor was from a different country. Then Columbia had this very international program, so I've always felt exposed to the global community. It's always going to be what I'm interested in. In global culture and how it has changed in the time that I've been alive, with the rise of the internet and the intersection of this very strange digitized world that we find ourselves in.
Are those the main themes for your work?
I think so. Every play that I've written thus far has been in some way about the nexus of digital technology and globalization. More than anything I'm just interested in digital culture and how it has made global discourse both more fractious and more hegemonic.
There is a certain irony to you exploring these themes in the oldest form of performance…
A form that is inherently local. Theatre is the most analogue form you can work in. It has this incredible immediacy to it. There's something delightfully paradoxically, almost perverse, about trying to deal with such massive themes about an abstract digital realm in this aggressively personal, immediate, analogue form.
Doe theatre need to be updated, or worry about the digital age?
There's something enduring about the theatre that means it will never go away. Where theatre needs to adapt is we live in an age where people are being saturated and attention spans are getting shorter. What can theatre offer that other art forms can't? For me it's about having an audience sit in a space together and think more deeply about the issues that are affecting their lives but they don't have time to really consider. Such as the impact of these huge global mega corporations or huge digital systems are having on their lives.
How do you get the younger generation to go to the theatre?
For me, a huge part of it is trying to represent communities who aren't usually represented on English-speaking stages. A part of my mission is to have complex, amazing Asian characters on stage that I didn't see in the media growing up, and I continue to see not enough generally. I am putting people who look like you and represent parts of your experience on stage – you should come down and see it.
Also, I think it's about doing exciting and novel things in the way you produce your work. Particularly with this production being really tech heavy, we're pushing the frontier on what you can do onstage. I've always been interested in dabbling with emerging technologies. Right now my work is really about digital technology but it doesn't incorporate much emerging digital technology, and that's something I would love to do in the future – actually work with AR and VR on stage.
Even within Asia, because we want a sense of commonality, we often falsely group ourselves together
What is your writing process?
I always start with research. Depending on the play, the syllabus will vary. With my play Golden Shield, for example, I did six months of research. I'll know at a certain point that I've done my diligence and then I can start writing. With White Pearl, the first stage was just reading about the conditions under which these ads went viral, reading more about the skin-whitening industry. Then actually interviewing people: I was part of this collective of women of colour at Columbia and I had mentioned that I was interested in skin whitening and writing about it. So I started interviewing people in this collective. It was fascinating that whether people were from the African continent or from Asia, everyone had some experience or exposure to the skin-whitening industry.
While there were commonalities between all these women's experiences it was very culturally specific. You couldn't talk about skin whitening in a country without talking about the colonial history of that country or the core structures of that country. So I realised how potent of a metaphor it actually was for a bunch of different things, for the beauty industry more broadly and how it monetises women's shames and insecurities. It's a good catalyst for talking about global unity but also global difference.
How much of this is colonial, how much of it is aesthetic – or are the two inseparable?
It's so complicated and it's different in every culture. The more I researched the more I found: for instance, in south-east Asian countries it has more to do with class system, and historically which class was associated with which types of skin colour. It varies a lot – obviously every country in Asia has a different relationship to colonialism. That western influence is hugely different in different Asian countries.
That's one of the things the play explores, it explores this idea you can talk about Asia as a unified monolith; actually there are wildly different countries and cultures that have been arbitrarily grouped together. The more you poke at the intercultural tensions within that global region, you start thinking how these cultures are wildly different from one another.
Do Asians see Westerners as a homogeneous group? Or is there a greater awareness of the inter-cultural differences?
I think it's both. It's very true in the West that Asian immigrants get grouped into this faceless monolith. I think even within Asia, because we want to have a sense of commonality, we often falsely group ourselves together. So we bury all the brewing tensions that are going on. I experienced this growing up: the difference between Thailand and the Philippians, and how racist Asian cultures are of each other. That's something that doesn't get talked about, but it's much more fractious than we give it credit for being.
It's very interesting in this moment to see the resurging rise in the West of nationalism, against the economic necessity for a globalised world. That tension is the direct result of the fact that we're not thinking more deeply about the impact that digital technology is having on global culture.
I want to hold myself to an artistic standard first and foremost, and then renegotiate and reframe the discussion around my work
How do you strike the balance between celebrating your identity as a young, female playwright of colour, without being pigeonholed?
I haven't fully come to grips with it yet; I'm still working out what my boundaries around it are. I think visibility and representation is important, which is why I’ve been very keen to do as much press as possible – In order to be responsible for my own work and be at the centre of my work and hopefully encourage other people to do this too. I am very wary of the way I have been pigeonholed by companies and the ways the play has been marketed. In the sense that because I am Asian I am therefore in a position to write this play or being marketed as part and parcel with my play.
I want to hold myself to an artistic standard first and foremost, and then renegotiate and reframe the discussion around my work so that I can direct it to be what I want. Not about my own identity politics, for the simple reason that I think the ideas in my work are more interesting than me.
It is a dual-edged sword, I go back and forth about it. About how much I want to de-centre myself from publicising the play, while also acknowledging that part of its marketing is 'young up-and-coming playwright who is Thai-Australian’. It should be about visibility but not othering me.
You’re part of the first wave of writers who grew up in the digital age… Does that help with your writing?
Maybe. I think it's more that I have a lot of hubris and ambition. I'm blissfully naive and don't police what I'm interested in or what I write. I stay curious in things as they are happening.
I do think I've been lucky to live in liminal cultural spaces my whole life. I think it makes me more emphatic as an artist, and as a human being actually – that I really think about the multiple identities contained within a single human being. Not just their culture or the language they speak.
Part of what I really want to do in my life, and I'm not sure if as a playwright or something else, is that people of colour contain those multitudes and fight the simplistic representation. Particularly of Asians in the media, which is making leaps and strides but still feels to me very two dimensional.
Which writers have inspired you?
There are lots of brilliant young playwrights of colour in New York. Ming Pfeiffer is one of them; Jeremy O. Harris, who is blowing up right now. An extraordinary young playwright. Even people like Phoebe Waller Bridge writer who are unafraid of delving into the underbelly of humanity and creating characters who aren't likable but tell us something about being human beings.
More broadly I've always been attracted to dark storytelling, whether that’s writers like Angela Carter and Kathy Acker, or filmmakers like David Cronenberg. I really do like ornate, grotesque art in all forms, I think there are things that are beautiful but also deliciously ugly. There’s this term called ‘the sublime’: it basically means something that is simultaneously so beautiful and so terrifying that it pushes you to a point beyond language.
Any particular work of art recently?
There is a visual artist called Anicka Yi who is so amazing. I went to see a piece of hers which was split into three parts. She created this scent, she spliced the scent of Asian-American women with the scent of an ant colony and sprayed the scent as you entered the exhibition. It was so overpowering, and dealt with so many issues with dehumanization and exoticising Asian women in this very primal way. She sort of mixes organic systems with digital systems, in really scary frightening ways.
For more info, see anchulifeliciaking.com