Caitrin McKiernan

Caitrin McKiernan Brings Martin Luther King JR. to China

by Charles Donelan

McKiernan.jpgOn February 5, 26-year-old Caitrin McKiernan made two remarkable public appearances in Santa Barbara: a chancellor’s reception for approximately 60 people at UCSB, and an assembly at San Marcos High School for 1,300 students. The events were held to celebrate and to inform people about the Stanford University grad’s extraordinary network of current cultural projects in China. In June 2007 in Beijing, McKiernan will produce two versions of a play written by Stanford’s Clayborne Carson about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. One production will feature a group of Chinese high school students, and the other will be a main stage production at the prestigious National Theatre of China, with one of China’s most recognizable television stars directing. The play, Passages of Martin Luther King, was first produced at Stanford in 1993. The National Theater of China’s staged reading, which McKiernan organized in May of 2006 to start the project, was totally sold out and extremely well received. And theater is only one aspect of the ongoing cross-cultural education project that McKiernan has initiated. Every week in Beijing, she leads discussions and teaches classes in Chinese about King’s life and legacy.

At both of the Santa Barbara assemblies, the highlight occurred when Chika Okafor, a Stanford senior, and Li Yun Bai, a 15-year-old Chinese middle school student, recited the last five minutes of the “I have a dream” speech. Alternating between Okafor’s dynamic, near singing of the English and Yun-Bai’s emphatic, emotionally charged Chinese, their collaborative performance was mesmerizing. Santa Barbara, where McKiernan was raised (she went to Laguna Blanca and Midland schools on her way to Stanford), was the last stop on an educational and promotional tour of the U. S. for the group of five traveling with this project, which included Okafor, Li, and the director from the National Theater of China, Yan Shi Kui. Beginning with stops in Oakland and Palo Alto, the group went on to visit a church service at King’s former congregation in Atlanta and to tour Birmingham, Alabama, conversing with a former leader of the sanitation workers there, and viewing the sculptures that have been erected in Kelly Ingram Park to memorialize the violence blacks suffered at the hands of Bull Connor and his police force. Their final stop in the South was Memphis, where they stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, which has now been converted to the National Civil Rights Museum, and talked with an eyewitness to the assassination.

According to McKiernan, the entire tour was designed to give those involved an opportunity to “feel what it was like for him [King].”

McKiernan’s King project in China began when she was there on a Fulbright grant. She observed that in the course of a conversation about Martin Luther King, Chinese students were sometimes willing to talk about things that would otherwise be uncomfortable for them to address in a public discussion. For instance, she found that most Chinese youth would be reluctant to air their grievances in a public setting. Although this is in part a response to decades of harsh retribution by the government and the Communist Party for expressions of dissent, there also appears to be a deeper, more longstanding cultural reticence around such concepts as that of an unjust law.

American universities have been running “in China” programs for many decades, but it was not until the liberalization of certain aspects of Chinese society following the protests at Tiananmen Square that opportunities like McKiernan’s began to arise. McKiernan first visited China as a teenager, then spent another five months there as a Stanford junior. Sidestepping graduate or professional school in favor of direct action, she found support from the Fulbright organization for continuing her studies in China. Her aim has always been to realize not only her own potential, but the potential excitement and interests of those around her. This is why she was recently encouraged by one of her Chinese mentors to imagine herself as “ling dao” — a leader. “Right now I’m constantly talking to young people who inspire me,” she said. “Chinese students have a tremendous desire to know more about the United States, but what this project has allowed me to realize is that their desire is about a lot more than the U.S. It’s much larger than any single national culture. That’s why King’s ‘dream’ and the issues he raises have been such important catalysts — they are truly international.”

McKiernan belongs to a generation of young women who have been raised in post-Title IX California, and her expectations for the results to be derived from education reflect it — particularly in her impatience with more conventional means of effecting social change. McKiernan said this project was inspired in part by her sense that “government doesn’t work” in these types of situations. But in comparison to the Chinese, young Americans like McKiernan remain very idealistic. She described the culture of contemporary China as having been profoundly shaped by the policy limiting individual families to having a single child. These “little emperors,” as they are known in China, are, according to McKiernan, “well suited to certain kinds of academic and professional success, but also utterly disillusioned with many important things as a result of the relative failure of the Communist project in China.” She went on to say that “these young people feel that they have nothing to believe in now, and that’s why the ‘I have a dream’ speech touches a chord with them — it inspires them to look for something to care about that is larger than personal success.”


The National Theatre Company of China will present the Beijing premiere of Passages of Dr. Martin Luther King June 14-17, 2007.

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