Pretty much as we’re talking — or reading — King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World, is roaring on Broadway in a musical that brings together the classic story of beauty (aspiring actress Ann Darrow) and the beast (Kong). And roaring in her own way is actress Christiani Pitts, who plays Ann, the woman brought to Skull Island to secure her acting career, but instead has her life changed by the unimaginable.
Christiani got her start as a performer at the age of eight in Montclair, NJ, where she appeared in the musical Once On This Island. The impact was immediate and she knew, even then, what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Eventually, this led to such regional shows of Rent, Aida, Big Fish, and Cabaret. She made appearances in films (Big Momma’s House 3; Like Father, Like Son) and television (Elementary), and her big stage break came from the Broadway production of A Bronx Tale, in which she played the lead female role of Jane.
In this exclusive interview, Christiani reflects on scoring the part of Ann Darrow and the impact that King Kong has had on her in a number of ways.
To start with, how did you come to the attention of the big ape?
I auditioned a little over a year ago while the project was still in development in the states, and it was a process that took a couple of months. Then they offered it to me, which was funny, because we never actually got to work with Kong in the audition process, because he was still in Australia. It was an interesting part of the process, him being the leading “man” and not being there.
So what was the audition scene like?
We actually didn’t do any of the Kong scenes. We sort of solely spoke as the character and heard her life struggles before meeting Kong, which was really really fun, because she changes so much after she meets him. And once we started rehearsing, the actor who voiced as Kong, we sort of rehearsed with him in the studio, and we physicalized Kong by a really interesting process to develop my relationship with him on a very minor scale. And then made sure that all the intimacy, the deep connection, was planted so that way when we moved to the face, we already had the groundwork about her to raise the scale.
It seems to weird to describe it “voiced,” but Kong is voiced by actor Jon Hoche, right?
Yes, Kong is literally an actor and it’s because he’s made up of fifteen different actors, and the actor who voices him really has such a range of sounds, moans and grunts and barks and things that he can do, and that’s all one guy up there making it happen.
Considering you auditioned without Kong being there, what was your reaction when you first encountered him?
I just thought I was going to be underwhelmed, I can’t lie. I thought it would be cool, but it couldn’t be that great. Well, they opened the curtain, and I just sobbed. I couldn’t stop crying, because the idea that I was going to play opposite some of the most incredible and creative and beautiful technology that I ever put my eyes on, was more emotional than I could’ve expected. I just wasn’t expecting to be completely blown away. And so it hasn’t left me disappointed; playing opposite him is one of the craziest things I’ve gotten to do, because it changes every night and he’s so magnificent.
How would you describe Ann’s journey over the course of this show?
When you first meet her, she’s incredibly insistent and hungry and excited and optimistic and faithful, but extremely misguided. She has no actual focus on what she wants to do with her life — she just knows she wants something great, and she wants to break the mold of all the social constructs that are put on her as a woman in 1930. Towards the middle of the play, and as you watch her relationships develop with Kong and the other actors on stage, you start to see her figuring out where she stands in the world. And how she can take all of her ambition and desires and wants, and put them into a very real place.
You start to understand why Kong is so important, because he is someone who can roar as loud as he wants, is king of his jungle, but doesn’t have anyone who actually understands him or cares about him as an intimate creature. You sort of watch how he helps her gain the strength that she needs to roar and be her own person, and have a little focus on what that means in the world. So by the end of the play, you meet a woman who takes all that ambition and puts it into something positive and focused in the world, instead of just being naïve and hopeful. Although that part of it is really fun for me to play, because I know when I moved here, I was the same way: really excited, but didn’t really know where I wanted to be. It’s really fun for me to see this character who tells me what I want in life and how to get it.
Does her change at the end, where she doesn’t care about doing anything but helping Kong and doing the right thing, impact on you?
It really did, just the sort of message of ambition and what sort of sacrifice to get there. That you could have sacrificed your moral dignity to get there is something that I am so drawn to as a person and as an actress, because, you know, you said it very plainly and very truthfully, that at the end she sort of doesn’t care about anything but the basic humanity of caring for another creature that someone wants to destroy. I have my own personal ambitions and desires and I want to do so many great things, but if it was ever to damage the integrity of another being, then I need to be able to stop myself and say, “That’s not worth it.”
And that’s something that I think is so important, because everyone is ambitious and everyone sort of feels greedy in their own right, but we all have to sort of be respectful of other people. I’m literally learning so much about my own everyday life; somehow this character is a guise in that her own life goals are not worth essentially murdering or taking the life of someone else. And, in this case, it’s an animal, but in other places, it could be taking someone’s shine… it could be something simple, but it’s really an important message I think.
It’s interesting, too, contrasting that with Carl Denham, who, at the beginning at least seemed to have some spark of humanity in him, but by the end he’s been reduced to not having any humanity.
We talk a lot about this in New York when we would table read through the story, about how Carl has been really honest about his ambition from the beginning and he wants to change the world and he wants to have a name for himself and be at the top of the world, and you sort of are rooting for him for it. Until you ask, at what cost? So it’s really cool to watch these two characters want everything out of life, but make the decision abut that cost.
Part of the fascination that Kong had for Ann Darrow way back in the original 1933 film was the fact that she was a white blond woman, the likes of which he’d never seen before, because he had just lived on the island with the natives. With that in mind, what do you feel the connection is here? Why does Kong become so fascinated with Ann Darrow in this show?
In the original book, which is what our show is based off of, there’s a line in the novella where Carl Denham says, “We’re going to a place where no white man has ever seen or been seen,” and so it is a big part of that story. I have my own personal feelings about it, which is that it sort of seems a problematic era of the story. You start a few connections to racism that don’t necessarily belong in an adventure picture, something that’s about suggestiveness and wonder, and there are so many awesome scenes, that when you sort of start to bring in race, it feels a little touchy.
It would be a lie to say that there wasn’t some awkwardness bringing it up.
No, no, not at all, but it’s important, because in 1930, when this was created, it was very much a part of the conversation in that way. And I think it’s fascinating that in 2018 it is just as much a part of the conversation, but in a way of inclusiveness and what is that connection on a deeper level? If our show still takes place in the 1930s, but is being produced in 2018, it’s really interesting to watch a black woman connect to a creature who is being put in chains and being brought to a country that he knows nothing about. Because in 1930, my great-grandmother would’ve been a slave. So my connection to it is really deep, is really emotional, and I don’t think that that’s something that was necessarily connected to the character of Ann Darrow in every other version.
I’m fascinated by the fact that some people view the story and don’t make that connection at all, they just love to get an adventure. But there are some people who come up to me afterwards and say, “The message of breaking chains and freeing yourself from cages really sat with me in a very deep way,” and I appreciate that, because that means that we’re doing our job. Art is something that can hit people in different ways, and I love that some people are just seeing an awesome adventure story with cool lights and a cool puppet, whereas other people are leaving in tears, because they’ve sort of connected to it on a level that they didn’t expect. Me being an actor of color has something to do with that, and I’m really proud of it and excited by it.