In Broad­way’s ‘King Kong,’ Not a Dis­tressed Dam­sel in Sight

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Chris­tiani Pitts, the first per­son of color to por­tray the role of Ann Dar­row, brings a mod­ern­ized, em­pow­ered lead­ing lady to the stage.

BY LEIGH NORD­STROM POR­TRAIT BY MERON MENGHISTAB

In the hall­way out­side her dress­ing room at the Broad­way Theatre, Chris­tiani Pitts, the star of the new block­buster pro­duc­tion of “King Kong,” has hung framed pho­to­graphs of a col­lec­tion of ac­tresses and co­me­di­ans from the 1930s, who serve as both a wel­come into her space and a guid­ing light for her per­for­mance on­stage.

Most no­table of the bunch is Moms Mab­ley, who Pitts learned of as she was re­search­ing her role as Ann Dar­row in the leg­end, which opens tonight on Broad­way. “I didn't know that there were fe­male co­me­di­ans or black fe­male co­me­di­ans in the Thir­ties; I had no idea,” Pitts says.

Pitts, who is the first ac­tor of color to take on the role of Ann Dar­row, has turned her dress­ing room into a world of her own.

The room is draped in dusty pink fur­ni­ture with touches of gold ac­cents; a fish — named Fishy — holds res­i­dency on one of the shelves. Pitts greets each of her vis­i­tors with a hug, and two more upon depart­ing, as she wel­comes them into the space she’s cre­ated for her­self.

The role of Ann Dar­row, though she didn’t know it at the time, was just what she had been pray­ing for, com­ing off her Broad­way run in “A Bronx Tale.”

“I was say­ing that I would love to do an ac­tion film with, like, green screen and el­e­ments that aren't real, so that you could re­ally sort of push the boundaries of your act­ing and try to work with things that aren't ac­tu­ally there,” she says. “I prayed about it that specif­i­cally. Then this au­di­tion comes up for ‘King Kong.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my good­ness. It's go­ing to be like act­ing with a green screen, with ac­tion.’ I was blown away be­cause this was ex­actly what I wanted.”

Pitts, 25, got started in the­ater in At­lanta, singing in the church. “Be­cause it was in the church I don't think peo­ple took it as se­ri­ously; it was for God, so it wasn't for en­ter­tain­ment pur­poses,” she says. When she moved to New Jersey in mid­dle school, she did a school pro­duc­tion of “Peter Pan,” which she took per­haps a lit­tle too se­ri­ously. “I felt like I was get­ting ready for the Tonys,” she says. “That, for me, is when I knew that act­ing is what I wanted to do.”

She moved to New York City after she grad­u­ated from Florida State Univer­sity in Tal­la­has­see, with Broad­way in her sights.

“My cer­e­mony was at 9 a.m. and I had a 3 o'clock flight to New York,” she says.

For her cur­rent role, she went be­yond look­ing at past in­car­na­tions of the "King Kong" hero­ine, who most fa­mously was por­trayed by Fay Wray as well as, most re­cently, Naomi Watts, and found char­ac­ter di­rec­tion in the women’s move­ments of the Thir­ties.

“I def­i­nitely re­searched a lot of ac­tors and ac­tresses from the time, but also the con­ver­sa­tion around our so­cio-eco­nomic lives in the 1930s; it's in­ter­est­ing that the re­search lies so heav­ily on the Great De­pres­sion and how it af­fected men's work lives,” she says. “You had to dig a lit­tle deeper to re­al­ize that the women were af­fected two times over just be­cause they then had to pick up the work at home...they had to do jobs that they never learned how to do, and did it grace­fully. It was so in­spir­ing be­cause I just felt like the char­ac­ter was 10 times stronger than I could ever imag­ine, with putting on the cir­cum­stances of the Great De­pres­sion.”

But this “King Kong” is not a pe­riod piece; it’s a mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the clas­sic leg­end, and Pitts’ Dar­row aims to be a woman for mod­ern times.

“Out of all this re­search from the Thir­ties there are themes that are so preva­lent right now that I, un­for­tu­nately, don't have to dig that deep to feel and re­late to: the idea of me be­ing in a po­si­tion where I don't re­ally have a choice be­cause a man has left me with no op­tions be­cause he can, and be­cause no one will ques­tion him, and be­cause no one will hold him re­spon­si­ble,” she says. “I have women that will stop me at the stage door and say that they feel so in­spired to speak up for them­selves after see­ing the show be­cause my char­ac­ter at the end fi­nally stands up for her­self and finds her voice that she's strug­gling to find the whole show.”

She stresses that her Ann Dar­row is far from a dam­sel in dis­tress; the script has been writ­ten largely from Dar­row’s per­spec­tive, giv­ing more in­sight into her life’s story than in pre­vi­ous ver­sions.

“She's al­ways sort of been the beauty of the pic­ture and her main job is to be beau­ti­ful and be present and be the source of Kong's af­fec­tion, but you don't re­ally get to learn too much about how she found her­self with all these men on a boat or why she wanted to be an ac­tor,” Pitts says. “I love that our script ex­plores her am­bi­tion and her will and her des­per­a­tion to find her voice in the world.”

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