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...