The Moon, and the Stars, and the Whole Goddamn Universe
The following piece was published in the program for Out Front Theatre Company’s 2022 regional premiere of All the Natalie Portmans (directed by Nikki Toombs; written by C.A. Johnson; February 10th to 19th, 2022, Atlanta, GA).
She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen.
— Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
What is it about Natalie Portman that speaks so strongly to Keyonna, the 16-year-old heroine of All the Natalie Portmans? Specifically, what is it about Portman’s movie star persona? Did it start as a simple celebrity crush? When did it go from crush to fixation? And most crucially, how did it morph from a fixation into a survival tool?
Playwright C.A. Johnson herself said she chose Portman because at the dawn of the 2010s, the time the play is set, she was an “it girl” who made “everyone else in the movie feel big… [she was] the face that came onscreen and told you she loved you and you thought… ‘I can do anything.’” It can’t be a coincidence that Keyonna positions herself as the subject of Portman’s attention and affection in their imagined scenes: whether she’s playing Anakin Skywalker partnering with Padmé Amidala or she’s channeling Zach Braff in Garden State, Keyonna relies on the Natalie Portman in her mind to convince her she can do anything. “And if she can do anything,” Johnson said, “she can get out.”
Film historian Stephen Tapert has described Portman as a star “defined as much by her political and social beliefs as by her acting.” Keyonna describes her as “smart, but sweet, and kinda sexy in an untouchable way.” Portman’s most iconic characters — Black Swan, V for Vendetta, Léon: The Professional — are passionate and driven and fragile in ways that are entirely her own. Keyonna, an exceptionally smart person, sees herself as well as the person she knows she can become in Portman. Life is tough for her: she’s still reeling from the sudden death of her father, she’s grappling with a strained relationship with her self-destructive mother as well as her best friend, and she’s learning to navigate the tricky new terrain of life outside of the closet.
Keyonna is doing more than just projecting onto a movie star, though: storytelling, we learn, is in her DNA, and it’s one of her greatest skills. She shows an astute understanding of the way the film industry works. “Hollywood is full of beautiful, talented women,” she says early in the play. “I see that. I honor it. And someday I’mma make mad money exploiting the hell out of it. Natalie is my ticket.” Hollywood might feel as far away as the moon, but by obsessively watching and studying her favorite films, she’s able to both block out her present reality as well as internalize her goals for her future career. It’s queer escapism and ingenuity at the same time.
“You can’t homogenize pain. Oppression looks different for different people,” director Nikki Toombs says, acknowledging the ways in which the play sits at the intersections between systems of oppression in the Black community and in the LGBTQIA+ community. While there is still rampant racism within the LGBTQIA+ community and a stigma towards queer people in the Black community, All the Natalie Portmans explores the layers of intersectionality between the two groups. Johnson asks the audience to consider what power structures are in place that create and enforce the oppression that reaches across both communities.
Through the play, Johnson confronts and investigates Black trauma and the effects it has on her characters, but she does not revel in it. Despite being haunted by grief, poverty, and a system designed to keep them down, there is a distinct, surprising sense of compassion within All the Natalie Portmans. Johnson’s characters, each of them phoenixes rising up from the anguishes of life, are driven by their love for each other. They hurt each other and push each other away and care for each other in the way that only human beings can: they know that connection is the most meaningful thing we have in this life. “It takes community to build community,” Toombs says. Our innate need for community is what keeps us telling each other stories. It brings us to the theater. It pushes us to sit on the couch and revisit our favorite movie. It keeps us going.