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Young Americans are flocking to China in ever greater numbers. Many are cultural entrepreneurs, running magazines, organizing literary salons and promoting concerts. This week, they’ve brought a play about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the stage in Beijing.
The drama is in Chinese, and the cast features a Chinese actor in the role of King, accompanied by black American gospel singers.
“I have a dream,” says actor Cao Li. He also has a thin mustache and a round face, which he is good at focusing in a stern and righteous gaze as he delivers his fiery speeches.
Cao is an actor with the National Theatre of China, which is co-producing the play with the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute.
Clayborne Carson is the institute’s founding director. He wrote the play Passages Of Martin Luther King, based on the late civil rights leader’s letters and papers.
“It’s really a family drama, and in that sense, the theme is universal,” Carson says. “It’s King and his relationship to his father, his mother, to Coretta King … those kinds of relationships that sustained him during his life. That’s the center of the play.”
To the producers’ surprise, the play’s themes of civil rights and religion did not trigger any government censorship.
The play’s director, Wu Xiaojiang, says that young Chinese minds are increasingly open to these sensitive topics.
“As China makes gradual progress in politics,” he says, “I think people will get a clearer understanding of this play’s message. They won’t simply reject it because they think it differs from China’s ideology. We may even find things worth borrowing for our own social advancement.”
If there were any Chinese human rights activists in the audience, they might have felt right at home watching Martin Luther King debate tactics with black militants Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
Chinese audiences may also have been surprised by a scene in which King meets with President Kennedy.
Kennedy warns King that the FBI thinks King is a communist. Ironically, the Chinese communists at the time considered King’s nonviolent approach a sellout to reactionary forces.
The play’s production in China is the brainchild of 27-year-old Caitrin McKiernan. She says she’s surprised that she’s been allowed to hold discussions on Chinese campuses about the Montgomery bus boycott and the freedom rides.
“I think that it shows that there’s something happening right now in China,” McKiernan says. “There’s a moment, there’s an opening that’s happening that allows people to have these kinds of discussions, that allows the actors during one scene to hold signs that say ‘freedom now’ and to sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ on stage, and to show what civil disobedience is.”
As part of the broader cultural exchange, McKiernan brought the Chinese actors to King’s hometown in Atlanta.
“As a student, the play makes me want to learn more about Mr. King and this sad historical period of racial segregation,” says Chen Xiwen, 18, a student at a Beijing school involved in the exchanges.
McKiernan says that after the play’s five-night run in Beijing, she hopes to take it on to other cities in China and the United States.