Clay Carson on the Chinese production of Passages of Martin Luther King

Courtesy of Clayborne Carson Clayborne Carson stands with members of the cast and crew

Clayborne Carson stands with members of the cast and crew during a curtain call at the June 22 performance.

Courtesy of Clayborne Carson A scene from Carson's play

A scene from the production of the play, in which Cao Li (center) plays King.

Clayborne Carson

Clayborne Carson

Last spring, Passages of Martin Luther King, a play written by history Professor Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute and director of the King Papers Project, had a groundbreaking five-night run in Beijing. The play, based on the late civil rights leader's letters and papers, was performed in the capital of a nation long criticized for human rights abuses. Yet the performance was hailed a success, playing to capacity audiences all five nights.

On July 25, Cynthia Haven, a writer with the Stanford News Service, met with Carson to discuss the Beijing production of his play.

Video excerpts of the interview can be viewed at

You described Passages of Martin Luther King as an important historical event. How so?

Coincidentally, this is the 100th anniversary of spoken-word drama in China. The first drama ever presented in China was the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin, so it's interesting that 100 years later we're coming with Passages of Martin Luther King. This is the first time that Chinese actors and African American actors had appeared on the same stage. This was something new.

When you say "spoken-word drama," you are distinguishing it from, for example, the Beijing Opera?

Obviously, China has a long tradition of theater, but the kind of Western notion of theater really came over about 100 years ago, soon after China became a republic.

How does one convey to the Chinese the meaning of the life of a man who died fighting for civil rights 40 years ago? They have so many contradictions within their own society.

The Chinese are very familiar with the problems that Martin Luther King faced. The problems of minority rights, the broader problems of human rights, the issues of civil disobedience. All of these are part of contemporary China, in the same way they were part of the United States in the sixties. The Chinese are familiar with King—at least, some of them are. Reading the "I Have a Dream" speech is part of the standard curriculum for Chinese students. A whole generation of students, particularly those educated in the last two decades, have some exposure to Martin Luther King. An older generation remembers Mao and Mao's comments about the struggle of black people in the United States, and particularly his mixed comments about Martin Luther King and his strategy of nonviolence. Talking to Chinese people, I found the middle generation had almost no knowledge.

Middle generation … meaning what ages?

People in their 30s, 40s, maybe even 50s, as opposed to older. The people who weren't alive when Mao was around, and had very little exposure to China as the leader of the Third World revolutionary forces.

Traditionally, the Chinese government has endorsed King as a blow for the class struggle and against American imperialism, but it also insists that racism and discrimination are outcomes of decadent Western societies. Do they see the lessons of King's life as pertinent to themselves?

The people we talked to, the people who supported the play, obviously felt that King's message was relevant to contemporary China. There is a desire among many Chinese to confront these issues, to confront issues of minority rights, discrimination, and to try to find positive, constructive ways of dealing with the tremendous social problems they are facing as they are so rapidly industrializing.

Caitrin McKiernan, the Stanford alumna who produced the play, held discussion groups in Beijing. She said the reaction of the cast suggested that King's message does hit home in China, that the Chinese do see parallels to the divisions in their own society. Could you give some specifics of their reaction?

I gave a number of talks on this trip—and my two previous trips—at universities, at libraries, where we were able to get more people who were of various age groups. At every one, it didn't take long before they began to move from the story of King and the struggle in the United States to their own issues in China.

It was surprising to me how open they were about expressing their feelings about many of the problems China is facing today—discrimination, issues about the freedom of expression. Just the notion that they would raise the questions about freedom of expression indicated that there has been some progress in opening up that area for public discussion. They didn't seem to be concerned about being filmed while asking such a question, for example, about human rights issues.

Most of the discussions have focused on the political implications of the play. But of course the play also focuses a great deal on King's religion.

That's actually where we expected to find more resistance, because clearly the play wouldn't have been approved for performance if there had been serious concerns about the political content. But I think most Chinese may not have been aware of how deeply involved King was as a religious leader. Surprisingly, that did not cause any problems either. They were very open to that. We had a gospel choir onstage. We used a lot of religious symbolism.

For example, at the point in the play when King was assassinated, the lights on the stage go dark and, above the stage, lights come on in the form of a cross. That's one of the highlights of the play. That's not in the script. That's something the theater company thought was appropriate at that point in the play. It really indicated their willingness to take on some of the sensitive issues in China.

It took some courage on the part of the theater to stage scenes of civil disobedience a stone's throw from Tiananmen Square. How did you persuade the National Theater to approve this choice?

The National Theater Company from the very beginning understood that this was going to be a new step forward for them. Rather than resisting it, they welcomed it because they want to grow as a theater company. They came to the United States last January, as part of an attempt to get more familiar with the material. We did a reading of the play over in Oakland, so they saw it in front of a predominantly black audience in Oakland. Then they went to Atlanta and to Martin Luther King's church and saw a black church service. They went to Memphis and went to many of the sites there, a tour organized by the National Civil Rights Museum. So they really made an effort to begin to understand the culture that produced Martin Luther King. If they were going to do this play, they wanted to do it well. They wanted to do it with a full understanding of its cultural context.

That's the theater company. How did the government react to the suggestion?

Well, there was always a worry about that. I had heard that the day before a play is supposed to open the government can step in and use some kind of an excuse and just say it's not going to happen. There can be disputes about any number of things that can lead to it being shut down. In the current climate, though, the government is bending over backward. The Olympics are coming up next year. Even before, when I first went there two years ago and talked to a number of government officials as part of my talks in China, I found that many of them understand that China has some problems that it has got to face. They have to find positive ways of dealing with it. There are riots going on in some Chinese cities—people angry about being dispossessed of their land. They have some pressing social issues. Perhaps there is one side of the Chinese establishment that reacts to that by saying we need to repress more and clamp down more, but there's another side that is saying that we have to offer some safety valve to release the social pressures, and some ways for people to express themselves in a positive, constructive way.

I understand the government didn't cut anything from the play or the performance.

There was, as far as I could see, no censorship at all. As I mentioned, there were some things that surprised me. There is a scene where King goes to jail, but the staging of that, the choreography of that, was really in the hands of the National Theater and the choreographer. The way in which they staged it was so eerily similar to what had happened in Tiananmen that you got the impression that this was a statement that now you can, at least on a stage, present a scene of civil disobedience that perhaps 18 years earlier would have prompted a violent response on the part of the government.

And yet some multinational corporations were jittery about the production.

Yes, that was very disappointing. I think that Americans need to be concerned about American companies in China that are so frightened that they might do something that will offend the government. I think they're losing sight of the kind of values that you would hope they would help bring over into China. If we can't—as American citizens, doing business in China—bring some sense of democratic values, openness to new ideas, if we can't stay committed to those values, even at some economic risk, then how can we expect that of Chinese people, who are risking much more?

King is a figure of global significance. In Germany, South Africa, China—what does he mean in these countries?

In the United States we view him simply as a black civil rights leader, but in France or Germany or South Africa or China, he's viewed as someone who represented more than civil rights issues, someone who is not limited by the fact that he was a black leader, someone who represents social justice and peace and all of these universal concerns. We tend to limit his influence to black Americans. Outside the United States, King is more like Gandhi. He's a universal symbol.

Of course, we've heard a lot about King's adultery in recent years. Yet some might say you've chosen to portray that marriage in a saccharine light.

These were political partners. Both of them were very political people. In my portrayal of the relationship of Martin and Coretta, I wanted to portray that, first of all, the relationship started in both of them being committed to political change. Coretta did not gain her political commitments because she married Martin Luther King. She had them when she came into the marriage. That's what attracted them to each other. I also wanted to indicate that this was a relationship that went through tensions.

When Hoover sends a letter that suggests Martin Luther King's affairs, that's something that Coretta was aware of, too. It was necessary to build that in as part of all the pressures that were on both of them. The play really centers on the last year of King's life, and the pressures he was under during those times when he was attacked because of his position on the Vietnam War. But he also knows that J. Edgar Hoover has this personal vendetta against him. He also knows that his support within the black community is very limited. Many people are moving over to Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power beliefs. So I wanted to portray King not as this leader on a platform that everyone follows, at least every black person in the United States follows, but as someone who is really being pushed in lots of different directions and is feeling an enormous amount of pressure. At that point, he begins to rely even more on his religious faith as the basis of the beliefs that allow him to carry on.

The Los Angeles Times wrote that the production was "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." Could you give examples of some of those issues?

It was an experiment on both sides. They wanted to do the play, but—how to do the play? And how to do it while respecting the culture that produced Martin Luther King? I think if an American theater company wanted to do a play about a Chinese figure, we would have the same concerns. Are we doing justice to the person? Do we really understand that cultural context, the cultural nuances of it? I felt that they were making the extra effort to try to do that. It's not often that, if you're going to try to do a play, you would come to the United States and actually try to get some sense of the cultural milieu in which Martin Luther King was produced. But they did, and they were able to see the play performed in English. That helped them begin to understand. They talked to the person who played Martin over in Oakland. They talked to the director of the reading in Oakland. Again, they could exchange ideas.

When the gospel singers came over to China, to me what happened at that point was magic. We didn't know what would happen if you brought together the gospel singers and the Chinese actors. Would this really work? The gospel singers were singing in English, the Chinese actors in Chinese. How do you bring them together on the stage so they seem to belong together? That was where the director proved how brilliant he was. He only had about 10 days with the Chinese actors and the African American singers to bring them together in an ensemble. We had long rehearsal days—sometimes going on to 9:30 at night. There were times when a question would be asked in Chinese and answered in English. There were times when the Chinese actors joined in singing a gospel song, which they learned in English. The intermixture of these two cultures was so well handled that the audience felt that this was one cast, it wasn't two groups of different actors being thrust together on a stage. It was one group of actors performing a play.

They had Chinese subtitles for the English?

Yes. They had Chinese subtitles and English subtitles. But I talked to other people and they had the same experience I did. They said after a while you stopped looking at the subtitles. You knew the synopsis of the action. It was more like watching an opera—you might not understand Italian, you might not understand German, but you can watch the actors and singers and you know the general outlines of the story, and that's what's important.

How did you wind up as a Martin Luther King scholar?

Ironically, in my early work as a scholar, I built my reputation working with what I call the grass-roots side of the movement, not the King side. My first book, In Struggle, was a story about the Southern struggle that emphasized the role of people other than King. King was kind of a peripheral figure for the voting-rights workers in Mississippi and Alabama. So that was my perspective. I wanted to tell a different kind of story. Then I got a call from Coretta Scott King in 1985 asking me whether I'd be interested in editing Martin Luther King's papers. I actually told her no at first, because I didn't feel I [pauses] I wasn't a King biographer. This was not the perspective I had always taken. But then I thought about it for a while and I thought, "Gosh, do I want to spend the rest of my career looking over my shoulder, thinking that I could have edited Martin Luther King's papers, and I turned it down?" She was somewhat persistent. She wanted me for the job, so we had a discussion out here in San Francisco. She invited me to come to the King Center [in Atlanta]. After discussing this for a few months, I decided to take on the task. At that time, I thought maybe I was devoting the next 15 years. I didn't really understand that it was a lifetime commitment.

Ten years ago, you said: "There are times when you begin to identify with King being thrust into a role that he never asked for. In the same kind of way, I never applied for this position. It was something that kind of dropped out of the sky. I feel like my life has been to a large extent taken over by forces beyond my control, and all I can hope to do is my best." Do you still feel that way?

Yes, yes. I think that there is that sense of identification with the way in which your life can be shaped by forces beyond your control. There is a sense of destiny about it. You have prepared yourself for that. It's not that I wasn't interested in King before Coretta King called me. It's not that I didn't have a strong commitment to the historical study of the movement. But that particular aspect of it is very similar to King. He was prepared for the role thrust upon him by Rosa Parks, but if she hadn't done what she did, he wouldn't have been able to do what he was able to do. So I think that that call in 1985 opened up an area where I think my talents have been best used. If I had continued without that telephone call [pauses] how many SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] stories can I tell? It was not really that clear where I would take the story. Maybe I might have just moved to other subjects. But this has allowed me to remain focused on a subject I find endlessly fascinating—that is: How do oppressed people liberate themselves?