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Can a black heroine fix the racist stereotypes infecting ‘King Kong’?

In new Broadway production, actress Christiani Pitts steps into the role first made famous by Fay Wray

When King Kong opened on Broadway recently, actress Christiani Pitts became the first black woman in history to play Ann Darrow, the legendary damsel in distress who gets carted off by a gargantuan silverback gorilla on his way to the top of the Empire State Building.

Before Pitts’ casting, Darrow had been portrayed in film by a parade of young white blondes. Fay Wray famously originated the role in the 1933 film directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. A 1976 remake starred Jessica Lange, and director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) resurrected the story again in 2005 with Naomi Watts.

The Broadway musical, a $35 million production that stars a 2,000-pound puppet, is a commercial success despite being almost universally derided by critics. But consideration of Pitts’ role as Darrow has been scarce. Her casting raises plenty of questions about whether a character like King Kong can, or should, ever truly be divorced from the context of prejudice and panic that birthed him. Since Cooper and Schoedsack first brought him to the screen, Kong has been an enduring symbol for white Americans’ imagined fears of black male sexuality.

Still, this new production of King Kong comes amid a flowering of race-neutral casting that has led to black actors in some of the biggest roles available. A black woman (Denée Benton) played Natasha in an adaptation of a segment of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Another (Alexia Khadime) portrayed Elphaba Thropp in Wicked. And still another (Noma Dumezweni) currently plays Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. On Broadway, Aaron Burr and George Washington are supposed to be black and Norm Lewis can be the half-masked phantom of the Palais Garnier.

What makes Ann Darrow so different? Well, for one, her whiteness has always been central to the role. Americans didn’t historically worry about black men attacking black women, but they did worry about white women, hence the effort to dehumanize black men by using an ape to symbolize them. Is it even possible to see King Kong as merely an ape? It’s a question Pitts has given a great deal of thought.

“I would love to see that happen, but unfortunately I don’t think that we can,” Pitts told me recently. “And I think that it’s important to acknowledge it, especially because of when it came out. … Although it would be great to be able to watch that film and disregard the subliminal narrative, it’s almost important that we do see it and do realize that for one of the first action movies with talking, there’s a racial undertone. I think that has huge historical importance.”

Fear and Loathing on Skull Island

Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow in King Kong on Broadway.

Joan Marcus

Before we can understand what it means for Pitts to play Darrow, we must first understand what her co-star symbolizes, and the troubling history behind him.

That’s because the story of the giant gorilla kidnapped from his home on Skull Island is a nesting doll of racialized anxiety, mixed metaphors and white hubris. It’s also a thematic follow-up to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Both films center on the fear of black men sexually victimizing white women. It’s just that King Kong uses an ape instead of white men in blackface to convey the threat.

When Kong was released in 1933, it reflected the misery of a country in the midst of the Great Depression. Bread and soup lines abound in Cooper and Schoedsack’s depiction of New York. Poverty, along with a wish for celebrity, drive Ann to board a ship to an unknown destination with a strange director named Carl Denham only hours after she’s met him.

They sail to a secret island enveloped in fog that’s inhabited by people who’ve never experienced contact with the outside world. Denham, Darrow and the ship’s crew arrive as the natives are about to sacrifice one of their maidens to the giant gorilla that lives in the jungle beyond their village gates: King Kong.

In the film versions of Kong, the black natives kidnap Darrow from the ship under the cover of darkness and offer her, terrified and screaming, to the ape king. Denham, the crew and the love interest she’s cultivated aboard the ship go back to the island to save her, with many of them dying along the way. They fall off cliffs, get eaten by nightmarish beasts and invoke Kong’s rage. Meanwhile, Kong takes a liking to Darrow — or at least decides not to eat her the way he has all the black virgins who’ve been offered to him in the past. Once Darrow is rescued, Denham always insists on subduing Kong and bringing him back to New York. There, he sells tickets to a show where a giant ape in chains is beguiled by a blonde in a white evening gown.

Of course, Kong’s handlers overestimate the power of American steel to subdue the wild animal, who goes nuts on stage amid the flashes from newspaper photographers. He takes off with Darrow, wreaks havoc on the city, climbs with her to the top of the Empire State Building, and finally gets shot down and killed by military planes.

Uncivilized, inferior brown people, the irresistible white woman and the destruction of an oversize symbol of black virility are the recurring tropes of King Kong. Kong’s zombielike, loincloth-sporting worshippers kidnap Darrow and shove her through a gate with a locking mechanism that doubles as an unmistakable metaphor for penetrative sex. They’re never, never depicted as sympathetic. Each subsequent film adaptation changes slightly to reflect the time in which it’s made, but those key elements remain.

John Guillermin’s 1976 version reflects a world defined by the energy crisis. Kong is taken back to New York in the hold of an oil vessel, supplanting the millions of gallons of inky black gold that had been its intended cargo. In Jackson’s bloated 2005 take on the story, the human natives of Skull Island barely register as people but instead are presented as a feral, languageless horde with a predilection for decorating with human remains. They emerge from the environment, barely distinguishable as human and covered in mud, similar to the undead crew of the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean: “part of the crew, part of the ship.”

Before writing the original King Kong, Cooper and Schoedsack had embarked on their own Heart of Darkness-style journey. They traveled by ship to Ethiopia, where they met the prince who would later become Haile Selassie I. But Cooper and Schoedsack’s America was also in the midst of a lynching epidemic. The Birth of a Nation, a silent Civil War epic, had been released 18 years before King Kong, yet the violent racism reflected and encouraged by the movie was ever-present.

Its costume design inspired the white robes and hoods we’ve come to singularly associate with the Ku Klux Klan, and its release single-handedly resurrected the organization after years of dormancy. It was wish fulfillment for whites resentful of a changing society in which Jack Johnson fought his way to the world heavyweight championship title in 1908 and retained it for the next seven years. Not only was a large, dark-skinned black man the best fighter in the world, he had a white wife, much to the consternation of many, many racists.

The Birth of a Nation told its audience they were right to consider Johnson and men who looked like him to be an affront to white Christian sensibilities. Its depiction of the white woman as the pinnacle of virtue, who would rather pitch herself off a cliff than face the clutches of a cartoonishly evil black predator, helped justify a wave of extrajudicial torture and murder against thousands of black men that lasted for decades. (Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” the protest dirge written by Abel Meeropol, in 1939.)

Griffith’s ideas about black male predation clearly informed King Kong, to the point that Cooper and Schoedsack had trouble being honest about its true villain. That would be Denham, whose love of money and fame dooms everyone who goes into business with him. Rather, they absolve Denham (and white men writ large) for his responsibility in Kong’s tragic death. The film ends with Denham proclaiming, “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty that killed the beast.”

This is the baggage that has followed the story of Kong all the way to the stage of New York’s Broadway Theatre: an unwieldy albatross of fear, resentment, control and racial hierarchy that is enforced with firearms and gas bombs.

Can an Ape Ever Just Be an Ape?

Kong may be a tragic hero, but he and his species remain inextricably conflated with stereotypes of untamed animal savagery, lasciviousness and other ugliness that gets heaped onto black people.

There has arguably never been a less racially neutral animal in the history of the country. King Kong opened on Broadway the same year Roseanne Barr was fired from the reboot of her eponymous hit show after calling Valerie Jarrett, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, the progeny of the “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes.” The words “ape” and “gorilla” remain favored pejoratives for racists seeking to malign Serena Williams and Michelle Obama, and they also persist overseas, where soccer fans are known to pelt black players with bananas. When LeBron James was pictured on the cover of Vogue with model Gisele Bündchen in 2008, evoking the memory of Kong and Darrow, then-ESPN columnist Jemele Hill admonished the basketball star to “be more careful with his image.

“It’s make-believe on the surface, but when you dive in and look at it from a different lens, the truth becomes really harsh, and not only was saying a black person was a monkey an insult, but you look back historically when black people were three-fifths of a person and were put in the same category as livestock during slavery,” Pitts said. “It’s really, really, really disgusting when you dive into what it can mean to so many people.”

All of that makes it exceptionally difficult to accept Kong as a positive figure, even when the new Broadway version transforms him into a fearsome but misunderstood softy instead of a god requiring human sacrifice. (This version, by writer Jack Thorne, has blessedly done away with the human inhabitants of Skull Island entirely.) Does the fact that Kong is now a sympathetic figure matter more than the racist conflation of black people with apes? Can it? I’m not so sure.

If Kong were widely interpreted as good, Denzel Washington’s indelible line from Training Day wouldn’t have nearly the same effect. His character, the corrupt cop Alonzo, doesn’t yell, “King Kong ain’t got s— on me!” because he’s tragically misunderstood. It’s a chest-beating declaration that Alonzo ain’t nuthin’ to F’ wit, ya dig?

Nevertheless, we must also consider the atmosphere in which Darrow and Kong exist on Broadway, where a perceived racelessness of certain characters is more commonplace. Shouldn’t we extend the same generosity of imagination to the character of Darrow?

Perhaps, if in Thorne’s version, a gorilla is just a gorilla. Except he’s not. When Kong is revealed in New York, he’s constrained by massive shackles that look like a supersize version of ones a visitor might see in a slavery exhibition at the Blacksonian. Kong is trapped, stolen from his homeland and brought to America to make a profit at the behest of Denham, the white man who owns the rights to his exploitation.

Denzel Washington’s character in Training Day doesn’t yell, “King Kong ain’t got s— on me!” because he’s tragically misunderstood. It’s a chest-beating declaration that he ain’t nuthin’ to F’ wit, ya dig?

Furthermore, Darrow feels guilt for her complicity in Kong’s capture and weirdly, in expressing her remorse to him, ends up as the black woman who sold out the gorilla/black man in service to her own ambitions. Darrow is both a guilty, opportunistic accomplice and the heroine who tries to set Kong free.

Is that … better?

Pitts struggled with how to approach this.

“It became a heavy load on me,” she said of the history that surrounds King Kong. “These are all things that I have known, and that I’ve learned about, but it’d been a long time since I sat with this material.

“My character, being in her early 20s in the 1930s, didn’t have the access to this kind of research. She was just living it. So what that means for her is that she doesn’t exactly know the trauma until she’s in it. So I had a lot of challenges in dealing with the comment on slavery in a very nuanced way, because [she doesn’t realize] until it’s happening right in front of her eyes, which is why there’s a moment in the show where she sees Kong in chains, and that is the first time that she makes the connection.

“The first time I read the script, and the second the captain says that we’re going to rope Kong and take him to America, that was the first time that I as the actor noticed the connection. But I had to realize that this person [Darrow] is living it. Her connection to slavery, which is her grandmother, and her great-grandmother, knowing that it’s something that happened in the past but that she wasn’t still reliving. It wasn’t until she actually sees the chains in front of her eyes that she has to sit with the connection.”

Characters can be racialized, or they can be raceless, but they can’t be both. Inside the Broadway Theatre, the audience is asked to see Darrow as simply a lady and Kong as a tortured circus spectacle of an animal. But taking in King Kong without some twinge of ethical compromise requires either Magritte-level mental acrobatics or complete ignorance of the role of race in American history. In each of those circumstances, it doesn’t really matter what color Darrow is.

Broadway Kong’s Rootless Fempowerment

Christiani Pitts is the first black woman to play Ann Darrow. She stars in the musical adaptation of King Kong.

Matthew Murphy

Just as each version of King Kong says something about the era in which it’s created, so too does each version of Ann Darrow.

Previous iterations of Darrow have been helpless (Wray), dumb to the point of absurdity (Lange) or nice ladies who just want a job in showbiz (Wray, Lange and Watts). Their perceived virtue is always a key part of the character. Lange ends up surviving a yacht wreck because rather than sit with a bunch of men watching Deep Throat, she goes to the deck in protest. She winds up joining the journey to Skull Island when the crew of the oil vessel spots her drifting on a lifeboat and hauls her aboard.

She develops a friendship with Kong, and when she’s rescued, her love interest (played by Jeff Bridges) cannot understand why she harbors an ounce of sympathy for the beast.

“He risked his life to save me,” she explains.

Bridges gazes patronizingly into the eyes of his imbecilic beloved. “No, honey,” he tells her. “He tried to rape you.”

Every version of King Kong featuring a white woman as Darrow has relied upon the threat of rape as motivation for the ship’s crew to return to Skull Island and save her. They perpetuate Griffith’s original white knight archetype, with Darrow as the recipient of their benevolent sexism. Griffith’s idea that white female virginity must be preserved against all odds is one that Lange’s character has internalized, even in a world where sexual attitudes have been transformed by Helen Gurley Brown and Hugh Hefner.

But transposing these characteristics onto the body of a black woman is more intellectually cumbersome. While white female sexual purity is seen as a commodity to be preserved for the sole enjoyment of white men, black women, especially in the 1930s, were seen as opportunities for sexual practice. Whatever harm they experienced was no one’s concern but their own.

Pitts’ Darrow, then, cannot be helpless and in need of constant protection. Instead, Pitts imbues her with a plucky bravery one might associate with the Dorothy of The Wiz. Pitts’ Darrow has no interest in being victimized. When Kong roars at her and beats his chest, she does the same right back.

Like Dorothy, once plopped into unfamiliar environs, Pitts’ Darrow sets about finding her way home and calling upon her own nerve and determination to do so. She comes to regard Kong as an animal like the ones on the farm where she lived before leaving to pursue her acting dreams in New York. Just as Dorothy sees past their shortcomings to befriend a tin man, a lion, and a scarecrow in an unfamiliar land, Darrow makes an unlikely connection with a wild gorilla.

Pitts’ Ann is adventurous, independent and determined. But she’s also a black woman who, like Kong, is ensconced in a production that doesn’t seem to have taken full account of what that means beyond a mealy-mouthed, post-racial conclusion that anyone can play anything! And it’s totally fine! Progressive, even! Perhaps, more than anything else, that’s what ties Kong and his black Darrow together on Broadway, even more so than their victimization at the hands of the arrogant Denham. Both remain suspended in a parable that, however well-intentioned, remains grafted onto a fundamentally racist foundation.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.