You may not know the name Anchuli Felicia King, but if you’ve seen HBO’s darkly funny satire The Baby, AMC’s Mary & George starring Julianne Moore, HBO’s The Sympathizer starring Robert Downey Jr and Sandra Oh, or award-winning Australian show The Twelve starring Sam Neill and Marta Dusseldorp, you’d be familiar with the Melbourne-based writer’s work.

And it isn’t just screen. King is also adept when it comes to her first love: the stage. Her play Golden Shield made its off-Broadway debut in 2022, while other works have been produced by London’s Royal Court Theatre, Studio Theatre (Washington DC), Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre.

Her latest play, American Signs, has its world premiere in Sydney this week. A one-woman show starring Catherine Văn-Davies, it is a searing interrogation of what King sees as the dark art of management consultancy.

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It may seem an unusual subject for a play, but it is one King keeps coming across through her TV and theatre writing.

“I’d been working on a lot of different projects set in the worlds of politics, tech, law and finance, and management consulting firms kept cropping up, particularly around financial fraud or when things went wrong. Every time I would read ‘McKinsey’ or ‘Bain & Co’ I’d think, ‘What do these people actually do?’” King tells Broadsheet during a break in rehearsals.

She was browsing a bookstore in Melbourne when she happened upon When McKinsey Comes to Town, the history of the powerful global management consultancy. She bought and devoured it.

“I got so mad about the lack of oversight and accountability, about these big consulting firms and the havoc they’ve wreaked on basically every sector in the world,” she says.

That rage fuelled a deep dive into the world of the so-called “big three” management consultancies: McKinsey, Bain & Co and Boston Consulting Group. She read everything she could, even informally “interviewing” unsuspecting management consultants over a drink at the bar.

Three days of frenzied writing resulted in American Signs, a play she wrote on spec with Văn-Davies as her muse. As luck would have it, Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Kip Williams read and loved it, programming it for the 2024 season.

It is the third play by King that Williams has programmed, following successful seasons of her first play, White Pearl (2019, a co-commission with Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres), trailblazing at the time for its all-Asian-Australian female cast, including Văn-Davies, and last year’s adaptation of the 1910 Chinese Australian novel The Poison of Polygamy, co-produced by La Boite Theatre.

Also as luck would have it, Văn-Davies was available and thrilled to take on the challenge of a one-woman play, even with the added juggle of a newborn baby.

“I wrote it very specifically with Cat in mind, which was extremely freeing as a playwright because she’s so virtuosic, I could afford to do a lot of really fun stuff and have her morph into all these characters and locations and trust she could do it,” says King, who is excited to give an amazing actor “the prospect of showing off what they can do, particularly Asian actors who often don’t get to do this really chewy, virtuosic work. I can’t think of a show on the main stage where an Asian actor has done a one-person show.”

The Thai Australian writer grew up between Thailand and the Philippines, moving to Melbourne in primary school. Her plays often feature Asian characters, and she has long been a champion of the need for more Asian faces on stage and screen in Australia, a truer reflection of the country’s cultural make-up.

American Signs follows an unnamed protagonist in her first year working at one of the big three who is struggling to make her mark in an industry where many of her colleagues are from families with money and influence. She eventually lands a client with a very charismatic – and married – manager, Max, and the play unravels from there.

“I didn’t write it specifically for Australian audiences but think it will be hugely resonant because of everything that’s been going on here with the government and consulting firms,” says King.

While the play is a pointed critique of the consulting industry, it also explores the interior life of this young Vietnamese Australian woman grappling with her own traumas and ambitions in a morally ambiguous world.

Beyond American Signs, King will be heading back to the UK and US for more yet-to be-announced screenwriting jobs, and she is already researching her next play.

“I love the research, it’s the thing that keeps me coming back to theatre, the opportunity to fuel my curiosity about the world, because I remain relentlessly curious. It’s amazing to get to do this deep dive into a subject and try to understand the truth of it.”

American Signs is running at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2 Theatre, Walsh Bay, from June 20 to July 14. $43–$85.