Natalie Portman is Keyonna’s imaginary friend, and also her crush. The 16-year-old has other crushes – all white actresses, pictures of whom she has cut out of magazines and pasted into a collage on her “dream board.” But she only plays with Natalie – performing in scenes with her from some half-dozen of the movies in which the Academy Award winning actress has appeared, from The Empire Strikes Back to The Professional.
Keyonna does this, we realize from the beginning of C.A. Johnson’s sweet if largely familiar coming-of-age play, to find some moments of manufactured joy in a life burdened by a dead father, a drunk and sometimes disappearing mother, and a brother who is trying his best but is only two years older, so that the family is one rent day away from homeless, and one meal away from hungry.
We’ve seen characters literally escape into the movies before; Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” comes to mind. “All The Natalie Portmans” is nowhere near as imaginative. The half-dozen or so scenes with Natalie Portman (Elise Kibler) are just brief interludes, although sometimes with flashes of cleverness. Keyonna, who dreams of being a screenwriter, once or twice gets into arguments with Natalie over the quality of one of her movies.
We’ve also seen struggling African-American family dramas before. As the play unfolds, we learn more of their past troubles, and see them getting into more fixes. What distinguishes “All The Natalie Portmans” is that it revolves around a queer character. Keyonna (Kara Young) has a quiet real-life crush on Chantal (Renika Williams) – her brother Samuel (Joshua Boone) has a noisier crush on the same young woman. What makes the play worthwhile are the performances, especially Kara Young as a spirited, brainy Keyonna. Montego Glover, the Tony Award nominee for Memphis, takes on the challenging role of Ovetta, who consistently disappoints her family and herself, but keeps on trying to do better.
What we’re left with at the end of “All The Natalie Portmans” is not just the sadness of the family’s situation, but the affection that the characters can’t help having for one another despite it all, and the way the actors bring to their characters — and to us — their warmth.
All The Natalie Portmans
by C.A Johnson
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
scenic design by Donyale Werle, costume design by Jennifer Moeller, lighting design by Stacey Derosier, sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar, hair and make-up design by Cookie Jordan, movement direction by Warren Adams, fight direction by J. David Brimmer,
Cast: Joshua Boone, Montego Glover, Elise Kibler, Raphael Peacock, Renika Williams, and Kara Young
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes including intermission
Tickets: $37 – $66
All The Natalie Portmans is on stage through March 29, 2020