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Hampstead Theatre defends casting of US actor following criticism from British East Asians

Roxana Silbert, artistic director of Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
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Hampstead Theatre has defended the casting of an American East Asian in its forthcoming production of The King of Hell’s Palace, claiming she was cast “because of her intimate relationship with the play”.

Earlier this week, British East Asians in Theatre and Screen – an advocacy group that campaigns for equality for British East Asians in theatre, film and television – said it was “extremely disappointed” by the decision to cast Celeste Den, claiming it deprived UK-based East Asian actors a chance to appear in the play.

In a public letter, BEATS said it was “shocked and saddened” that Roxana Silbert’s tenure will begin with a production that uses Arts Council funds to “prevent British-based East Asian actresses being given a rare opportunity to play a nuanced and humanised character in a major London venue”.

However, Hampstead Theatre said the production was being staged in line with playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “aspirations” for the play.

“Frances is an American national but a truly international playwright, much of whose work has been premiered in the UK. This play is set in China in the 1990s and it requires an all-East Asian cast of eight. One of those actors, Celeste Den, is American East-Asian and has been cast because of her intimate relationship to the play, which was jointly commissioned by the National Theatre in London and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago,” it said.

It added that Den appeared in early workshops of the play and a public reading in Chicago. The theatre said Cowhig felt Den had “been inside the skin of the characters longer than any actor in the world”.

“She also enjoyed the opportunity to spend a week in Chicago with Dr Shuping Wang, who inspired the character she is playing,” the theatre said.

It added: “Hampstead Theatre is a writers’ theatre that raises more money in philanthropy than it receives from ACE; we were happily able to use some of that money to fulfil a playwright’s casting aspirations. And the majority of the actors cast are, of course, brilliant British talent.”

BEATS also criticised the decision to have Michael Boyd direct the show, over a British East Asian director.

But Hampstead Theatre said the writer was involved in the decision and added: “He is not East Asian but as a son of a public health director and with lived experience of the Soviet Union (on which the Chinese bureaucratic system was based), Frances felt he would be a particularly wonderful fit for her play which centres around this very important topic.”

The theatre said it had already met with members of BEATS and was prepared to meet again, with a view to “building on our ongoing engagement with the abundant East Asian talent that exists in the UK”. It added that Den will be appearing with the permission of UK Equity, with “whom BEATS conferred during the casting process”.

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