(l to r) Kara Young and Elise Kibler in ‘All the Natalie Portmans.’ (Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez)
By Matthew Wexler
Be prepared. Playwright C.A. Johnson will get in your subconscious. I had a dream the night I saw All the Natalie Portmans, now receiving its world premiere at MCC Theater. No, wait. It was a nightmare.
Of the many topics Johnson so vividly tackles, a sense of home is the one that burrowed into my mind. In the play’s final scenes, after months of struggling to make their rent, Ovetta (Montego Glover) and her 16-year-old daughter Keyonna (Kara Young) pack up their minimal belongings, now forced to live in their car. Natalie Portman (Elise Kibler), who Kyonna conjures in times of need, makes a final appearance, saying, “Life. It’s happening for you.”
The context of that line can only make a full impact after experiencing the emotional rollercoaster that Johnson delivers, expertly directed by Kate Whoriskey (Sweat). The family, which also includes older brother Samuel (Joshua Boone), lives paycheck to paycheck in northeast Washington, D.C. Ovetta’s husband has died of a heart attack. She now works double shifts as a hotel housekeeper to keep afloat. Joshua, now a high school drop-out to help pay the bills, works at the bar that employed his father until he’s fired, accused of skimming off the cash register.
The resilient Keyonna turns to her imagination to find solace in the chaos. The aspiring filmmaker (dozens of quirky references pepper the dialogue and are equally charming whether you understand their context or not) has created a dream board of her favorite film stars, but it’s Natalie Portman that becomes her imaginary confidante.
“If I have any one goal as a writer, it’s to write honestly about the lived lives of women,” says Johnson of her work. “I have beliefs about those lives, about what it means to be socialized to care for others first (often to our own detriment).” That goal is tremendously achieved in All the Natalie Portmans.
Johnson’s specificity, both in the mother-daughter relationship as well as the presence of Chantel (Renika Williams), a friend (and maybe more) to both Samuel and Keyonna, bristles with raw urgency, framed in the context of cultural and societal issues that we, as a nation, have yet to address.
Among them are the environmental and socioeconomic factors that impact alcoholism among African Americans. Chanel’s drinking has forced her children into parenting as they struggle to pay the rent and bills and keep food in the cupboards. Johnson reminds us that this downward spiral has the potential to destroy a family. Resiliency prevails, but living out of a car is no Hollywood happy ending.
Whoriskey has assembled a first-rate cast that lifts Johnson’s vernacular off the page. As the sharp-tongued Keyonna, Kara Young mightily carries the emotional weight on her slight shoulders, with a laser stare worthy of Portman’s Padmé Amidala in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Glover, known mostly to New York audiences for her musical roles (Memphis, Les Misérables, It Shoulda Been You), takes a dramatic turn and blows out the doors of the Frankel Theater. At once volatile and achingly broken, Glover discovers Ovetta’s humanity in the darkness of addiction.
Scenic designer Donyale Werle has created a modest sub-level apartment, with a few fun visual tricks aided by lighting designer Steacy Derosier and sound designer Sinan Refik-Zafar’s pop soundtrack. A commercial transfer could amplify these elements and to further envelop Keyonna’s imaginary world.
I hope this is the first of many collaborations between Johnson and MCC Theater. I couldn’t help but think of August Wilson’s longstanding relationship with Seattle Repertory Theatre, and how this playwright deserves a similar home to cultivate new work that speaks to her vision to tackle issues that she describes as “self-actualization, locating and embracing brutal honesty, and loving without abandon.”
In my nightmare, I’m forced to pack up the apartment in a moment’s notice. A friend helps me sort through my belongings, but I’m left with a deep sense of dread as if my life will never right itself. When I wake up, I don’t think of Natalie Portman, but of Keyonna.
All the Natalie Portmans
511 West 52nd Street, NYC
Through March 29
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. His culture writing has appeared in Dramatics Magazine and on TDF Stages and ShowTickets.com. Matthew is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a past fellowship recipient from The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.