When Khadija Tariyan was 3, she plunged off the top of a sliding board and crash-landed, face down, onto a sand-cushioned playground.
“I looked away for a second,” recalled her mother, Gayle McKinney Griffith, an original dance member of the legendary Dance Theatre of Harlem, which celebrates its 50th anniversary season in April. “I saw her hit the ground. She started pounding the sand, screaming.”
Distressed, McKinney Griffith carried her daughter to their doctor who lived nearby. Tariyan’s broken collarbone soon healed, but her passion for launching herself off of tall places had just been ignited.
Tariyan’s daredevil athletics that involved another broken bone — her thumb — evolved into a decision to focus on dance that coalesced last November when she made her Broadway debut in the $35 million "King Kong" musical, directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie.
As a member of the predominantly male, 10-person "King's Company," she and one other female dancer transform the colossal 2,000 pound, 20-foot-high King Kong hulk into an expressive, lifelike character that exhibits and elicits a wide range of emotions. They also sing and act in the ensemble when Kong is not on stage.
"I even get to show a little bit of my aerial skills," boasted Tariyan, who is tethered to a harness these days.
Over a recent interview with NBCBLK in McKinney Griffith’s cozy, 100-year-old home in New London, Connecticut, the mother and daughter discussed how trusting in their natural talents and artistry has guided them to rewarding artistic experiences.
For Tariyan, “King Kong” represents the best thing she never imagined leaping off that sliding board as a toddler. Over the course of the show, she undergoes 14 costume changes, playing a worldly lady in a golden dress, a rollicking New York show girl, and a dock worker in electrifying ensemble musical numbers.
But her most satisfying and challenging role in the show occurs when she’s collaborating with the nine other puppeteers who commandeer the massive Kong marionette with rigging ropes, hand loops and buttons that trigger the King’s chest beats, knuckle walks and subtlest of movements. The group maintains constant communication, by way of hidden headsets and mics, with three operators in a soundproof booth on the theater’s balcony who control the animatronic ape’s head and facial expressions.
In the climactic and heartbreaking Empire State Building scene, using her body weight, she launches off Kong’s steel and fiberglass back, to raise his fists upward to defend himself against the fighter jet circling him.
She and a fellow puppeteer then grab a rope, requiring the utmost control and timing, to lower the doomed creature’s arm to console Christiani Pitts, who stars as Ann Darrow, weeping by his side. “The singed rope draws smoke as it slides through our gloves,” Tariyan said. “For the finale, the entire King’s Company promenades around Kong, guiding the ropes, as he rotates 360 degrees and falls to his death. It’s as if a part of us dies with him.”
Born and raised in Berlin after her parents were invited to perform musical theater there and decided to stay, Tariyan draws inspiration from her mom who always immersed her in the arts.
“Dija was always a part of my artistic life,” McKinney Griffith said. “I embraced her into my craft and took her to rehearsals, theaters and performances. She was exposed to a lot of international influences. She was interested in everything.”
Early on, Tariyan, who fizzes youthful joy, exhibited a talent for extreme sports. She decided to focus her fearlessness into ballet training at 11. She taught herself sewing to design her own theatrically inspired clothes. During her teen years, she “lived” for dance cyphers. “It was like a second education in how my body moved, listening to what the DJs played and communicating with dance partners,” she said.
“American and hip-hop influence were the rage in Berlin at the time.” she continued. “My parents, both African-American artists, were very supportive of exposing me to people of color who were engaged in the world, so I wouldn’t feel alone or question my worth.”
A few months after graduating from Connecticut College, with a major in dance, she landed a role in the off-Broadway production and tour of “Fuerza Bruta,” a heart-pounding, interactive, dance spectacle that originated in Buenos Aires and showcased her athleticism and grace. Tariyan said she feels a flood of gratitude for the valuable professional tips her mother gave her along the way, from lending her character shoes to teaching her how to dye tights to match her skin tone. Their careers paralleled in a delightful way when Tariyan got a gig with “The Wiz Live!” Her mom had danced in “The Wiz” movie three decades earlier.
“In the 1970s, we were breaking open doors to prove ourselves and convince the world we were a bonafide ballet company,” McKinney Griffith said. “Seeing so many people of color — at least a third of the cast — has made me very proud. As I see it, Khadija is now in the position of breaking open doors. By standing on the shoulders of the great people that came before her, she’s able to forge on.”
When she isn’t rehearsing or performing in the show, Tariyan is working on an EP with a group of talented musicians that developed into a show she created, titled “Khadija.” She recently performed it on a Kong off-night at a Greenwich Village cabaret to benefit the Trevor Project.
“It kind of hit me two weeks ago; I have this great job that allows me to perform art, but it also grants me the opportunity to create my own art,” she said. “I’m so thankful.”
Her mom, eyes aglow, purrs in a low hum as her daughter speaks. “She’s now teaching me,” she said.