Cultural revolution

A powerful production about Martin Luther King plays on a Beijing stage with a first-ever mix of African-American and famous Chinese performers. This isn't the China we thought we knew.

Published July 8, 2007


Halfway through Passages of Martin Luther King, Chinese actress Zhang Ying belts out a chorus of the hymn Precious Lord.

Moments later, African-American performers sing Eyes on the Prize: "And the one thing we did right is the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize and hold on ..."

From my seat at the Oriental Pioneer Theater, I was amazed by the tableau unfolding before me. The power of the performance notwithstanding, it was the politics at play that was astounding. Here was a civil rights production going on loud and proud in the capital city of a country commonly viewed as closed and godless. Not too far from Tiananmen Square.

One show hardly proves a country free or open. But something is changing here. For this American tale to pass the test of Chinese censors and make its international debut in this city would have been unfathomable not so very long ago.

Some see China putting on a good face ahead of the 2008 Olympics here. Still, as I watched for two weeks as this performance developed, there was something more here than just a good face.

I wasn't there as a journalist, but as a spectator and support. And all told, I struggled with my personal view of the events.

My wife, September Penn, was among the five African-Americans who performed in the play. The others: Kenneth Alston, a member of the internationally acclaimed group Three Mo Tenors, and Stanford University students Frederick Alexander, Chelsi Butler and Re Phillips.

I had to ask myself, was I looking at the event through the lens of a husband of one of the performers?

Or were my journalistic antennae rightly divining the truth about what was unfolding before my eyes?

Signs at each step along our two-week journey told me this was something special.

Over breakfast of Beijing fried egg, fried rice, toast and orange juice I was sitting across the table from Clayborne Carson, one of America's foremost civil rights experts, and saw something charming. There was a twinkle in his eyes, like that of a proud, young father.

His editing of Martin Luther King's papers, a job commissioned by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, led him to write a play about the civil rights leader's life. I was in Beijing because of him.

Just days after this breakfast chat on a Monday morning last month, Carson's play would be born on a China stage for its international premiere, featuring nine elite Chinese actors of stage, film and television as well as five African-American performers.

Carson and I first met almost two years before our trip to China. I was a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University and he was the professor with whom I wanted to study.

The day we met, he asked me a question: "What does your wife do?"

I told him she sang and wrote songs.

He asked if she did theater.

I said yes.

He pulled her into a dramatic reading of his play, lauded her performance and later asked her to help with a full run of the play in China.

The question had changed our lives.

At that same restaurant where we often met for breakfast (in the lower level of our hotel), the American and Chinese delegations gathered together for the first time.

The Gu Xiang 20 Club is a modern, charming and practical 28-room hotel in the heart of old Beijing communities, called hutongs, which boast of Eastern architecture with gray brick facades and narrow streets. There are no towering Marriotts here.

Although cars pass gingerly through the narrow roads in the hutong, these passageways seem more suited for the cyclists, pedestrians and drivers of the famed rickshaws that all day long dodge the motor vehicles.

During this introductory meeting, the play's director, Wu Xiaojiang - we called him simply "Director Wu" - immediately grabs my attention.

In his opening remarks, he tells the group that this performance is the first time that Chinese actors and African-Americans would perform together on a stage in China.

Even at this point, there was no certainty during that meeting that the five performances ever would take place a week and a half later.

Not only were there the challenges of bringing together performers who spoke two different languages, but there were the more monumental questions of whether government censors and theater officials would approve all of the content of the performance.

The message of Martin Luther King is powerful: The status quo must go. And so Passages of Martin Luther King is a drama, a true tale of freedom versus oppression, complacency versus protest. It is bathed in religious symbols, verses and hymns. It is a snapshot of America that highlights a tragic period in U.S. history.

It became Caitrin McKiernan's dream two years ago to bring Carson's story of Martin Luther King to China.

A 2002 Stanford graduate, McKiernan had studied with Carson at Stanford's Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. She later went to China on a Fulbright scholarship and discovered the Chinese had a passion for King.

Just as many Americans, the Chinese had read and learned King's "I Have a Dream" speech and admired its goal. But the full story of the black freedom struggle was not so well known.

In China, McKiernan began harnessing the resources of elite institutions and government officials to bring the performance to the stage. It was sometimes a difficult dance, in particular when it came to artistic control.

Did James Earl Ray in fact kill King or could it have been someone else or motivated by someone close to King? That became a question for debate.

It was noted that Ray recanted his confession and questions were raised about the FBI, but seriously questionable theories were discarded, as the Americans requested.

On the other hand, the government censors cut nothing from the performance, including the hymns, religious references and protest scenes and commentary.

Chinese actors filled the roles of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, King's parents, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover. They spoke entirely in Chinese with the theater presenting subtitles in English.

The African-American performers spoke and sang in English. Their words were translated into Chinese subtitles.

And the heart of the messages were not lost in translation.

Daddy King, Chinese actor Du Zhenqing, preached a sermon with an old Baptist feel, quoting the Bible: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. ..."

The singers broke out into verses of Amazing Grace and Praise God.

It was a multimedia presentation that presented clips of 1960s protests, King's speech during the March on Washington and brutality by police against African-Americans during the civil rights movement.

Again, I had to ask myself: Am I really in China?

This just didn't seem like the China I had read and had been told about. This said to me that at least on the ground - where we journalists ought to more often find ourselves - there was something happening.

The real people were tasting of goods so profoundly American and rightfully at times choking up in shame at the water hoses dousing blacks, the police dogs and the orders that a woman move to the back of the bus because of the color of her skin.

But at other times, the Chinese looked with amazement at how a civil rights icon also struggled between his vocational calling and his role as a husband and father.

The audiences - five crowds that included Chinese Olympic and other officials as well as students, other citizens and some Americans - gave thunderous applause to the performers. Some gave standing ovations for the show that led them to laugh and to cry.

Director Wu tells me that this is the beginning of a relationship.

"This was very good for me personally, " he says, touching his heart. "Every Chinese would agree."

Carson, even though he has been lauded as one of the producers of the award-winning documentary on the black freedom struggle called Eyes on the Prize, called this work in China "one of the high points in my life."

"This was amazing, " said Inday Espina-Varona, a journalist who flew in from the Philippines to see the show. She came as a friend of mine, not intending to cover the event. "In China? I wasn't going to write anything. But I have to write about this."