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

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

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,


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