“I am just realizing how much more I need to learn myself about Martin Luther King. I mean after all, I’m twenty six year and I’m white girl in China talking about a black man who died in 1968 in the Untitled States,” says Caitrin McKiernan. After graduating from Stanford in 2005 she launched a $200,000 dollar theater production in China about the life of Martin Luther King. Throughout the two years she took to make the play Caitrin tangled with government censors, overbearing co-producers, and multitudes social intricacies to get her dream produced upon the national stage of the National Theater Hall of China.
Although the play was seen by perhaps only a thousand people its impact is still reverberating throughout the world. Intellectuals, academics, and professors lined the audience and will sow seeds of the history of American non-violence in China. A documentary, Bringing King to China, was made about the behind-the-scenes process and cultural differences which canonized the production. It has played in colleges across the country, won several awards, and will play on the PBS in the near future. The play itself lives on as productions of it are currently being held in the West Bank in Palestine.
My part of the story is a footnote at the MIT showing of Bringing King to China. The documentary was magnificent. After six stops on the T, a short two block jaunt, and meandering through the hodgepodge of MIT buildings myself and a friend arrived at the production with time to spare. The documentary was better than we had expected it to be. There was no large lesson trying to be imparted upon the viewer. Instead, many small messages each spoke on another dimension of the project.
These little messages were simply profound. After talking about a train-wreck that was hidden under piles of dirt by a government official Catirin firmly reminded the viewers that this one incident did not reflect all of China just as one pastor in Florida burning Qurans does not reflect America. A new dimension of China, one filled with over fifty minorities, danced into my mind where a Chinese monolith had once stood.
In addition, the culture of China displayed itself in a human way vastly different from the radical government bureaucrats and angry students of the Cultural Revolution which dominate our collective image of China. In many ways they are just the same as us. They care more about consumerism than liberty. There are plenty of good moral people. There are some arrogant twits. However, in some quirky ways we are worlds apart. One prominent compliment to Catirin from one of her assistants was, “You are firm and capable. You could be an executive.” If an American were to give this same complement I believe they would substitute executive with something like statesmen, millionaire, or even just celebrity. Another intricacy which drew my attention was that within China the play did not get much advertisement because Catirin was unwilling to pay journalist for interviews. Americans, including her backers at Stanford, saw this as a bribe while the Chinese see it just like tipping a waiter. We are worlds apart.