BY COLBY FRAZIER
DAILY SOUND STAFF WRITER
When Cáitrín McKiernan was 16, she spent nearly four months studying abroad in China. At the end of her trip, McKiernan’s Chinese housemate said she didn’t think two people from different cultures could ever completely understand each other.
“She said she and I were 70 percent of the way there” McKiernan, a Santa Barbara native said. “That’s where I think I really started being interested in China.”
It was that brief encounter that has hung at the forefront of McKiernan’s mind for much of the past decade and is the motivation behind the documentary, “Bringing King to China,” which is being directed by her father, the journalist and filmmaker, Kevin McKiernan.
With more than 260 hours of footage shot on two continents, the McKiernans are currently editing, translating, and attempting to raise the last bit of money to bring them to the finish line on a project that is years in the making.
“This kind of feels like the last hurdle in this dream to start this dialogue,” Cáitrín McKiernan said.
Whether Cáitrín McKiernan knew it or not, many of the life choices she would make between her first trip to China and now would be tied to that country, its people, and its politics.
One of those choices was to attend Stanford University, where she studied under Clayborne Carson, a renowned scholar on Martin Luther King Jr. and writer of the play, “Passages of Martin Luther King Jr.”
While at Stanford, Cáitrín McKiernan, now 28, said she was able to look into King’s life by reading personal dispatches between the civil rights leader and his wife.
What she realized is there are two Kings: one who is recited by school children throughout America each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the King who was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War; the King who advocated for the poor and got in the face of the American establishment.
It’s the latter King who Cáitrín McKiernan says is often swept under the rug in America.
But what if King’s message was taken to China? A communist country well-known for its tight grip on the media, arts, and one might assume King’s ideas, also.
“I started to think King could be a bridge, but what King?” McKiernan says in the film. “King the dreamer? Or King the advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience?”
After college, Cáitrín McKiernan found herself on a Fulbright Scholarship in China. During a research project in 2005, she said she began interviewing Chinese people who said they knew about King, but knew little about his messages.
It was then that Cáitrín McKiernan started her own dream: to produce Carson’s play in front of a Chinese audience.
By mid 2006, Cáitrín McKiernan was testing the limits of Chinese theater by putting on a dramatic reading of Carson’s play. And it wasn’t at an underground theater in a dingy basement either. She took it straight to the top -- the National Chinese Theater -- where a year later, the play would storm the stage for five nights in front of a packed house.
The more than 1,000 people who were able to see the production were treated to scenes of Chinese actors with picket signs saying, “Jim Crow Must Go,” a giant white cross suspended above the crowd and five black American gospel singers.
At that point, there was little doubt Cáitrín McKiernan’s dream had sparked a dialogue among many in China and throughout the world. The fact the Chinese government would allow the play to be performed in the first place was an accomplishment.
“It shows that there’s an opening in China now for discussion,” she said.
While racism isn’t as simple as black and white in China, Cáitrín McKiernan said it is as abundant there as it is anywhere in the world.
She said having light skin is a sign of upper-class there. Those who bear the evidence of the sun on their backs and faces are immediately marked as manual laborers and field workers. They can sit where they wish on the bus, but are often discriminated against, she said. Having fair skin is so important that whitening foam, a kind of lotion that whitens the skin, is a popular product, she said.
As far as Cáitrín McKiernan knows, the play marked the first time in Chinese theater history that black people shared the stage with Chinese people.
With the success of the play, her role of building a bridge to China via King was complete. But what about America? A country still hounded by racial tensions 40 years after King’s death.
Somewhere along this journey, Cáitrín McKiernan realized King’s message was needed back home as much as anywhere else.
So 16 months ago, Kevin McKiernan joined his daughter in China to begin filming. He captured the play, as it was being rehearsed, the contract negotiations with the actors, the many discussions held by Cáitrín McKiernan, and the obstacles along the way.
Though the play is a pivotal point, he said the film begins where the play left off. Cáitrín McKiernan said she hopes the film can build a bridge back to the U.S.
“I think we can take King to China, but I also think we need to bring King back to the U.S., to Santa Barbara in the 21st century,” she said.
The timing might just be perfect.
No one can know for sure how many people during King’s lifetime could have imagined a woman and black man vying for the democratic presidential nomination, but that’s the case today.
Add to that the recent explosions of controversy around Sen. Barack Obama and his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the war in Iraq, which some say eerily mirrors that of Vietnam, and this year’s Olympic Games being held in China despite widespread protests about that country’s human rights record. The film, as well as King’s message, is as relevant as ever.
Both McKiernans hope that when the film is finished it will spur dialogue not only about issues in China, but those in other countries as well.
“We’re all connected in some way,” Cáitrín McKiernan said. “How can we be more connected? How can there be more bridges?
“[The film] is not saying the Chinese need Martin Luther King. It’s saying the world needs Martin Luther King. We need more dialogue.”
More information about “Bringing King to China” and how to make a contribution is available at www.bringingkingtochina.com.
Thursday, May 8, 2008
BY COLBY FRAZIER