BEIJING — Can a Chinese man successfully portray the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on stage? Should he darken his face and change his features to do it? Should American notions of political correctness determine how one of China's premier theatrical troupes stages a play?
Those are some treacherous cultural minefields, almost comically filled with opportunities for racial, ethnic and nationalistic missteps. So perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Passages of Martin Luther King," a Sino-American production that opened Thursday in Beijing, is that the producers, cast and crew are not only still speaking to one another but also holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome."
Mounting this production by China's National Theater has been a case study in the frictions, insights and surprising breakthroughs that can occur when one culture attempts to refract another through the lens of theater.
"That's the real beauty and challenge of the play -- how do you translate Martin Luther King?" said Caitrin McKiernan, the 27-year-old American co-producer. "Martin Luther King talked about 'being a drum major for justice.' How do you succinctly say that?
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 29, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
MLK in China: An article in the June 22 Calendar section on a play in China about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that producer Caitrin McKiernan was on a Fulbright fellowship in Taiwan. She was in mainland China.
"I don't think we're going to resolve all this, but it's a start. And I hope this play goes beyond Beijing, beyond China. I want the play to be performed all over the world."
OK, but first things first.
This year marks the centennial of the first modern drama performed by Chinese actors: A version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" produced by Chinese students in Tokyo in 1907. Different versions of the Harriet Beecher Stowe story were produced in Shanghai later that year and in Beijing in the early 1960s.
The "Uncle Tom" plays, still revered in China for their role in the creation of modern theater, were among a number of productions in China built around black characters, including "Drums on the Equator," another '60s production about Patrice Lumumba's independence movement in the Congo.
And in every case, the Chinese actors appeared in black makeup, with their features altered to suggest African or African American characteristics. William Sun, a playwright who is vice president of the Shanghai Theater Academy and has written extensively about foreign images in Chinese theater, said the Chinese saw it as the only authentic way to play the roles, much as they adopted "white" makeup and features to portray Europeans in such plays as Ibsen's "A Doll's House."
That tradition largely ended in 1983, when Arthur Miller came to Beijing to produce "Death of a Salesman" and insisted that the actors appear as they were, without race-altering makeup.
Still, the tradition was fresh enough that among McKiernan's first directives to the Chinese director of the King play, Wu Xiaojiang, was that no actors were to wear black makeup.
Although Wu did not say whether he ever planned to have the actors appear that way, he did say that he faced a "struggle" because "we're not painting Chinese characters black."
And that was just one of the cross-cultural challenges facing the production, which will be performed by actors from the National Theater with accompaniment from an American gospel chorus.
Written by one of McKiernan's Stanford history professors, Clayborne Carson, "Passages of Martin Luther King" is a biographical sketch of King that uses his words and those of contemporaries, including Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. It is an attempt to humanize King, to depict him as a man with real-life worries and fears, not a monument.
McKiernan, originally from Santa Barbara, came up with the idea for the Chinese production while on a Fulbright fellowship in Taiwan. Having majored in Chinese and African American studies at Stanford University, she saw the project as an unlikely marriage of her two passions. She worked full time for almost two years to bring it to fruition, with financial help from Stanford and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, among others.
For American audiences, much of the play is familiar ground, ranging over the high points of King's career, including his "Letter From Birmingham Jail" and his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. It has been performed largely on college campuses and churches in the United States.
Chinese audiences certainly will be familiar with King (Mao Tse-tung spoke admiringly of him, the ultimate seal of approval). But few will know much about the historical backdrop of his life any more than most Americans would know the day-to-day history of the Long March.
To fill this gap, the production team added the role of a narrator.
Then there was the problem of translating King into Chinese. How do you retain King's rolling cadences, his poetic use of language, his use of biblical imagery that few Chinese would know?