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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Young Americans are flocking to China in ever greater numbers. Many are cultural entrepreneurs, running magazines, organizing literary salons and promoting concerts. This week, they've brought a play about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. to the stage in Beijing.

The drama is in Chinese and the cast features a Chinese actor in the role of King, accompanied by black American gospel singers throughout.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

(Soundbite of play, "Passages of Martin Luther King")

Mr. CAO LI (Actor): (As Martin Luther King Jr.) (Chinese Spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (Chinese Spoken)

Mr. LI: (Chinese Spoken)

ANTHONY KUHN: I have a dream says actor Cao Li. He also has a thin mustache and a round face, which he's good at focusing into a stern and righteous gaze as he delivers his fiery speeches. Cao is an actor with the National Theatre of China, which is co-producing the play with the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Clayborne Carson is the institute's founding director. He wrote the play, "Passages of Martin Luther King," based on King's letters and papers.

Dr. CLAYBORNE CARSON (Founding Director, Research and Education Institute, Stanford University): It's really a family drama, and in that sense, the theme is universal. It's King and his relationships to his father, his mother, to Coretta King, you know. Those kinds of relationships that sustained him during his life, that's the center of the play.

(Soundbite of play, "Passages of Martin Luther King")

Mr. CAO: (As Martin Luther King Jr.) (Chinese Spoken)

Ms. ZHOU LING (Actress): (As Coretta King) (Chinese Spoken)

KUHN: In one scene, Martin and Coretta court each other to a doo-wop accompaniment. Cast members say the music really brought African-American culture alive for them. Kenneth Alston is one of five black gospel singers in the play.

Mr. KENNETH ALSTON (Gospel Singer): Well, prior to that, even coming we prayed that the music that we bring would be able to move the Chinese people here and that they would be able to experience, feel the experience through the music. And the one thing about the music of the civil rights movement is that it actually did move the movement.

KUHN: To the producers' surprise, the play's message of civil rights and religion did not trigger any government censorship. The play's director, Wu Xiaojiang, says that young Chinese minds are increasingly open to these sensitive topics.

Mr. WU XIAOJIANG (Director, "Passages of Martin Luther King"): (Chinese Spoken)

KUHN: As China makes gradual progress in politics, he says, I think people will get a clearer understanding of this play's message. They won't simply reject it because they think it differs from China's ideology. We may even find things worth borrowing for our own social advancement.

If there were any Chinese human rights activists in the audience, they might have felt right at home watching Martin Luther King debate tactics with black militants Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.

(Soundbite of play, "Passages of Martin Luther King")

Mr. CAO: (Chinese Spoken)

KUHN: Stokely, don't you see what the press is implying? King asked. Black power means violence.

(Soundbite of play, "Passages of Martin Luther King")

Mr. CAO: (Chinese Spoken)

KUHN: Power is the only thing in this world that gets respect, Carmichael shoots back, we must get it at any cost. Chinese audiences may also have been surprised by a scene in which Martin Luther King meets with President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy warns King that the FBI thinks he's a communist. Ironically, the Chinese communists at the time considered King's nonviolent approach a sellout to reactionary forces.

The play's production in China is the brainchild of 27-year-old Caitrin McKiernan. She says she's been surprised that she's been allowed to hold discussions on Chinese campuses about the Montgomery bus boycott and the freedom riots.

Ms. CAITRIN McKIERNAN (Co-Producer, "Passages of Martin Luther King"): I think that it shows that there's something happening right now in China. There's a moment, there's an opening that's happening that allows people to have these kinds of discussions, that allows the actors during one scene to hold signs that say, freedom now, and to sing "We Shall Overcome" on stage, and to show what civil disobedience is.

KUHN: As part of the broader cultural exchange, McKiernan brought the Chinese actors to King's hometown in Atlanta. Eighteen-year-old Chen Xiwen is a student at a Beijing school involved in the exchanges. She spoke after seeing the play.

Ms. CHEN XIWEN (Student, Beijing): (Chinese Spoken)

KUHN: As a student, she says, the play makes me want to learn more about Mr. King and this sad historical period of racial segregation. McKiernan says that after the play's five-night run in Beijing, she hopes to take it on to other cities in China and the U.S.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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