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?
"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?
"I think it's impossible to completely translate Martin Luther King's speaking style into Chinese," admitted Wu. The actor playing King has adopted some of the trademark cadences, especially when he talks about how justice "will roll down like a mighty stream." But the phrase "drum major for justice" was drummed out of the script; so were references to St. Augustine and Jekyll & Hyde.
Word of the play has spread in Chinese theater circles, and there is concern about how much of it was shaped for American tastes. Sun said he recently told Wu that the play would be better if the actors were made up to resemble African Americans, and Wu replied that he'd been told he couldn't. "Sometimes Chinese directors are pushed around, sometimes by authorities, sometimes by money men, sometimes by American producers," Sun said.
Claire Conceison, an assistant professor of theater studies at Tufts University who wrote "Significant Other: Staging the American in China," took a similar tack, saying that although she admired much about the project, "this is a U.S. play being pushed on a Beijing theater company -- and in spite of the fact that there will be benefits for all involved [and for audiences], there is clearly a motivation of pushing a U.S. agenda."
McKiernan, Carson and associate director Alison Friedman seemed surprised by the criticism and said their goal was to create a play about King that would reflect and respect Chinese sensibilities while offering a universal message.
"I wanted this to be a very clearly Chinese Martin Luther King," McKiernan said, "so that, when people came to the theater, they could say, 'Oh, a Chinese person could be Martin Luther King.' "
Zhang Ying, the actress playing King's mother, Alberta Williams King, said preparing for the play had been a moving experience that gave her a visceral feel for African American culture, especially after the gospel singers arrived and began rehearsing with the Chinese cast.
"I think that through this process, we've learned how Americans understand the civil rights movement," she said. "Through this process, this historic coming together of Chinese actors and African American singers, we've found a common ground."
At the end of a long day of rehearsing Sunday, she said, the cast and crew held hands, as they will at the end of each performance, and sang "We Shall Overcome" in English, with an added verse containing the slogan for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing: "One World, One Dream." The Chinese cast sang it in Chinese: "Tong Yige Shijie, Tong Yige Mengxiang." When it was over, she said, everyone began to cry.
Asked what she hoped the audience would take home from the play, Zhang said, "At the most basic level, they'll know more about Martin Luther King.... If it can tell the audience who Martin Luther King was, that he was an extraordinary person in American history, a civil rights leader, that will be enough."