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After a whirlwind 2019, in which three of her plays debuted around the world, Anchuli Felicia King is showing no signs of slowing down. The Thai–Australian playwright and multidisciplinary artist speaks about language, learning from other Asian women and how storytelling can make a difference. “I’m drawn towards muscular political storytelling, art that has a clear politics and an ethical framework it’s trying to impart. That feels especially vital in a world lacking humane moral leadership.” By Winnie Siulolovao Dunn.

Theatre-maker and multidisciplinary artist Anchuli Felicia King

Anchuli Felicia King.
Credit: Brynne McManimie

Anchuli Felicia King has been on the move all her life. Between Thailand, the Philippines and the suburbs of Melbourne, the multidisciplinary artist came of age within the all-too-familiar liminal spaces of being in which many people of colour in the diaspora find themselves. “I feel a bit like my wings have been clipped,” she says, when I ask her if Covid-19 has drastically changed her practice. “I was living out of a suitcase for a year and a half and now I’m back home with my parents.”

That year and a half saw King travel across the world to premiere three of her plays. White Pearl, on the dark undertones of the skin-whitening industry, debuted at the Royal Court in London before a critically acclaimed Australian season co-produced by Sydney Theatre Company and Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta, and an American production at Studio Theatre in Washington, DC. At Melbourne Theatre Company, her bilingual masterpiece Golden Shield shook viewers’ preconceived ideas about languages and who has the authority to translate them, while Slaughterhouse revealed the do-or-die nature of start-ups as it cut through Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre.

I tell King I knew she was back home because the wooden antique furniture and framed ink paintings in the background didn’t quite match her neon green bun, slick black coat and choker. “No,” she says, laughing through the digital static of the Zoom call, “it’s definitely not how I would decorate my house.” These Zoom backgrounds are almost like the setting of a play itself, wherein each object and its placement discloses the setting of the main characters. I wonder what she thinks of my bedside salt-rock lamp and, behind me, the framed portrait of Muhammad Ali holding a small passport cutout of my partner’s son. Her presence on the call reminds me how intimate the digital space has now become.

King tells me that her education in an international school echoed her own international childhood while instilling her with a love of languages. She first went to a predominantly White and religious private school in the Melbourne suburb of Toorak, where she and her twin sister were relentlessly bullied for being Asian, and for their American-inflected accents and bowl-style haircuts. “I’m thankful that our parents were so invested in our education and moved us to a more international school where the curriculum was incredibly leftist, feminist and had a strong focus on social justice,” she says.

In her younger years, King learnt Mandarin and spent a lot of time consuming the works of David Foster Wallace and Charles Bukowski. “Not that I really knew what they were going on about at 10!” She chuckles about these two names, both American authors so focused on sex, drugs and alcohol – the hubris of the straight White male. After high school, she attended Columbia University in New York and studied under many great figures. She tells me fondly of her tutelage under the librettist father of Asian–American theatre, David Henry Hwang.

I’m curious how the role of languages informs King’s practice today as someone who can speak Thai, English and French. “Moving through so many languages allows me to find voice,” she says, and rolls on about the vibrancy of idioms, the fracturing caused by multiple perspectives and a writing technique that sounds something like pâté, which I don’t quite catch. She pauses before adding, “How incredible, the idea that a playwright’s voice is endlessly refractable.”

Focus now on this section from Golden Shield, which demonstrates King’s mastery of storytelling and languages. The American characters Marshall and Larry are at a dinner with Deputy Minister Gao, with whom they converse with the help of the Translator:

THE TRANSLATOR
He thanks you for dinner and jokes that he is still full.
他感谢您的晚餐,还开玩笑地说他现在还饱着呢。

DEPUTY MINISTER GAO
Tell him the restaurant we will eat at next time is even better.
告诉他,我们下次去一个更好的餐厅。

THE TRANSLATOR
The Minister says the restaurant you will eat at next time is even better.

DEPUTY MINISTER GAO
Better century eggs!
那家的松花蛋更好吃。

THE TRANSLATOR
More culinary delights. (to the audience) What the Minister actually said was “better century eggs” but given Marshall’s aversion to them, I thought this was more appropriate.

MARSHALL
(to Larry) See if you can get anything out of this / fuckin’ weasel.

THE TRANSLATOR
(to the Minister) He is saying “see if you —”
他在说:看你能不能 —

MARSHALL
Uh – don’t translate that.

The awkwardness. The codeswitching. The racism. All imbued and in the full responsibility of the Translator, who, in a moment of professional faux pas, almost translates what was deliberately meant to be kept untranslated – Marshall’s insult of “this fuckin’ weasel”. Having come to know Golden Shield as a reader, as opposed to an audience member, I’m drawn to the small beats within the text that the audience is not privy to or, more honestly, experiences as sound rather than punctuation. “Uh – don’t translate that.” How incredible, the idea that a playwright’s voice is endlessly refractable.

King’s work highlights the importance of pan-Asian experiences as represented by Asian writers in art. It is a testimony to the necessity of diversity not only on stage, on screen or on the page but also behind the scenes. As a Thai Australian with an American accent picked up from her childhood in Manila, she stands firm in her commitment to creating work – and seeing it through – with voices that are authentic to what she notes as our global village. “I know this sounds corny but representation matters,” she says, and reminisces about previous writing rooms where either by pure luck or critical intervention she found herself in a room full of women, working with all-Asian casts and creative teams. “I’m always learning from other Asian women who are able to pull me up when something sounds too unreal or if a character rears too much into stereotypes.”

King knows the ins and outs of theatre and describes herself as a jack of all trades, which led her into multidisciplinary art. She tells me she first started working on set in sound design, which led her to videography. “I honestly thought projection design was going to be my quote unquote ‘real job’.” While she loved the storytelling aspects in video and sound, which were so unlike those in the written form, her love of dramaturgy also grew.

She applied to Columbia’s master of fine arts in dramaturgy, where they made her six-person cohort take a compulsory playwriting class. From there, she became enmeshed with the written component of theatre. She was still in New York when Donald Trump won the 2016 election. “All classes were cancelled that day. I was sitting in a room full of people of colour, queer and non-binary people and men and women who identified as transgender. We talked all day about the fear we all felt and now we know all our fears have manifested into reality.

“That’s why I’m drawn towards muscular political storytelling, art that has a clear politics and an ethical framework it’s trying to impart. That feels especially vital in a world lacking humane moral leadership.”

King says theatre gives physical space to grapple with complex ideas. “I believe art is an empathy machine … As a theatre-maker, I am invested in directing the energy of a live audience who, at the end of the day, always have agency on where they set their gaze, whether it be on an actor, a prop or the person’s head in front of them.” Theatre has an ability to contract or expand time at a moment’s notice, she says, depending on the light, the objects on set, and the way that dialogue is written and performed. “It was so interesting to me to see how White Pearl was undertaken by three different directors and three sets of casts. The interpretations born out of the different cultural literacies everyone was engaging brought the play into so many different lives.”

As she talks, I’m awed by King’s expertise in her field at the age of 26. I catch myself in the middle of a lament, before remembering every moment someone has said to me, I wish I was doing X Y Z at your age! and how I cringed thinking over and over to myself: What does my age have to do with my skill? Why should it matter? I ask King how she feels about all the media interest in how old she is. She says, “Honestly, I can’t wait to be 30 so people stop fixating on it. I think it’s pretty indicative of a culture that fetishises youthfulness over character and experience.”

An August from hell is fast approaching. “I’m writing for two television shows now and the schedule is looking like I’m up from 9am to 5pm on the Australian show and then up from 7pm to 3am for the UK show,” she says. Despite the hectic schedule, and the all-day writers’ rooms completely on Zoom, King is excited to be back within the realm of the screen, where she’s able to draw upon her videography history once more. She finds television is far more capable of emotionally driven storytelling because the camera is candidly directing the audience’s gaze – now often in the comfort of their own beds, a setting that isn’t as new or distracting as a theatre. In her voice, there is that glint of an artist talking about their work in progress, fully present in a story they are crafting in real time.

The theatre, inescapably, has been changed by the lockdowns. I ask King if she has any thoughts about the forced push into the digital performance. “Digital technologies are very rapid to adapt and change,” she says, “but we always have to interrogate what systems we are using, the secrets embedded into its code and who is in charge of each program. We must always consider ways we can subvert the digital.” I hum in agreement, having seen the way King has disrupted technology on her own website, where each tab looks like a bit of code and is deliberately mysterious about its contents page. For example, how could I know “_SUBJECT” would lead me to King’s bio?

Before we log off, King asks about me, and her question catches me off guard because I’m not used to being the interviewee. I find her consideration in my own life as an emerging artist a touching example of what it means for Australian women-of-colour artists to be in dialogue with each other. She even takes notes about the books I have edited and the artists I have worked with. “New and emerging writers of colour are what inspires me most of all,” she says, glancing through the screen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2020 as "King maker".

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Winnie Siulolovao Dunn
is a Tongan-Australian writer and editor.

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