Published On: Sun, Mar 29th, 2020

Off-Broadway’s ‘All the Natalie Portmans’ Showed the Power and Limitations of On-Screen Identification

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All the Natalie Portmans

After an extension by the MCC Theater off-Broadway, the COVID-19 outbreak forced the early closing of C.A. Johnson’s All the Natalie Portmans. That’s over two weeks of audiences who didn’t get to experience this production in its original form, which is a real shame. But as the virus forced New Yorkers and other entertainment-seeking visitors in the city out of public spaces, it moved them closer to more intimate forms of consuming entertainment – and quite proximate to the scenario of the play’s protagonist, Keyonna (Kara Young).

I recognize elements of her life because I lived many of them myself. As a 16-year-old in the year 2009 (yes, we’re even the exact same age), we didn’t have too much trouble with the classwork part of school but struggled to relate with other people. Instead, we found solace and comfort inside DVD boxes, learning empathy and connectivity through movie characters on our TV sets.

My identification with Keyonna goes deeper, even if the surface similarities end there. While I grew up with a stable family structure and the fortune of privilege as a well-off white male, she was a black queer teenager living uncertainly with a single mother struggling to stave off her alcoholism to keep a roof over their heads as the Great Recession rages in D.C. Keyonna belongs to several traditionally marginalized groups, and I don’t pretend to understand all the specific obstacles and challenges she faces simply by virtue of being who she is. But cinema is a great equalizer – something about watching these compact narratives of people forced into an active role against the challenges and conflicts in their lives can provide anyone who feels passive in their own life with an addictive substitute.

The key unit of identification for Keyonna, like many of us, is the movie star. A gifted performer transcends a role and a performance. We see ourselves, our lives, reflected through them. “The great movie stars each construct an image that is bigger than their individual films even as it connects those films in a narrative of unfolding personality,” wrote Ty Burr in Gods Like Us, his incisive book about the development of cinematic icons. “Every successful star creates a persona and within that persona is an idea. The films are merely variations on the idea.” For Keyonna, the persona in which she finds the deepest identification is the titular screen queen Natalie Portman.

Keyonna’s ongoing obsession with Portman confounds her family members. Her mother Ovetta (Montego Glover) wants to know why she is not more drawn to films starring actresses with whom she shares a skin color, asking why they can’t just watch Set It Off or any number of other movies featuring majority black casts. Her older brother Samuel (Joshua Boone) wants to know why Keyonna’s extensive wall collage of actresses cut out from magazines features almost exclusively white actresses, with the notable exception of Whoopi Goldberg. Early scenes in All the Natalie Portmans show how behavior they once indulged has now ceded way to a begrudging toleration.

But all the “why her?” discussion that pervades the start of the play serves a purpose beyond establishing characters. It’s an essential discussion of both how cinema works and who it works for. Keyonna’s fixation on Natalie Portman and preference for white actresses reveals the paucity of opportunities available for actresses of color in the 2000s and before to play characters in relatable, everyday situations. Far too often, roles for black actresses in particular (especially ones that earn acclaim) boil down to slaves, domestic workers, drug addicts or criminals. Implicit biases and structural racism in the entertainment business severely constrained these performers from constructing the same kind of star image that Natalie Portman could.

And why does Natalie Portman, in particular among white actresses, appeal to a queer black teenager? At a time when “feminism” had not quite become an industry-wide rallying cry for actresses and sexist portrayals of female characters still ran rampant, Portman cut against the grain. Her characters drew on a reserve of feminine strength, intuition and intelligence to get herself out of tough situations. She resisted overt sexualization of her characters, and even when her characters did have to wield this part of their identity weaponized it cleverly. And Portman built her identity as a person on more than just who she played on-screen; during the filming of the Star Wars prequels, she earned a degree in psychology at Harvard.

For Keyonna, Portman exists not only as a cluster of pixels on a screen. She’s an imaginary friend who emerges from doors and other portals in a style situated somewhere between magical realism and surrealism. Johnson never quite explains how the mechanism works, and she doesn’t need to. We recognize immediately that Natalie Portman, as embodied on stage by Elise Kibler, is both a figment of Keyonna’s imagination and yet entirely real. Cinephiles, particularly those who loved movies from a very young age, will undoubtedly recognize the place in her mind from which this Natalie Portman emerges. Movies and the performers who make them possible are not an escape hatch. They are a survival strategy.

Natalie, appearing in iconic get-ups from her most recognizable roles, appears at the end of scenes to provide tangible value to Keyonna’s life as she struggles. Dressed in her Black Swan tutu (a slightly anachronistic appearance given that the fim opened a year after the play is set), Natalie’s limber frame helps Keyonna paste a new celebrity cutout on the wall in a place she struggles to reach on her own. Manic pixie dream girl Natalie from Garden State lends Keyonna her headphones to play a tune that lulls her softly to sleep after a traumatic day. Star Wars Natalie wields a lightsaber and brings a second for Keyonna to do metaphorical battle against imagined foes. These are heightened manifestations of what a movie and a performer can give to those who seek the refuge in fiction they lack in reality.

But as conditions become grimmer as Ovetta struggles to control her addiction and Samuel fails to suppress his anger, Johnson shows us the limits of what Natalie Portman can do – both real and imagined. The versions of her that emerge are from much less triumphant stories – Where the Heart Is, Anywhere But Here, V for Vendetta – and prove less immediately helpful. These appearances showcase Portman’s exceptional range and the variety of storytelling with which she engaged, but that does little for Keyonna as she stares down the barrel of eviction and isolation. At a rock-bottom moment, Natalie goes in for a kiss with Keyonna, seemingly shattering the barrier between real and imagined once and for all.

But it has the opposite effect. The moment forces a reckoning for Keyonna and makes her realize that Natalie is not able solve all her problems. Movie stars, just like culture on the whole, cannot change the world by their work alone. But they can change a person, and maybe that’s enough. They can refuel us with the energy and motivation we need to get through some of life’s darkest hours. Natalie Portman, as imagined by Johnson and Keyonna, is not just an aspirational figure. She’s an inspirational one, too.

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Off-Broadway’s ‘All the Natalie Portmans’ Showed the Power and Limitations of On-Screen Identification