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C.A. Johnson’s ‘All the Natalie Portmans’ tells a fantastical truth

Amongst what seems like a relentless array of daunting questions that hover over a young adult, some might wonder: How do I pretend that the enormousness of the world doesn’t intimidate me? What’s my story? Where do I go from here?

But in C.A. Johnson’s most recent play, “All the Natalie Portmans,” that will run through March 29 at the MCC Theater, the question that most persistently finds itself in the main character’s, Keyonna’s mind is, perhaps, much more complex than the foregoing.

It’s an all-encompassing: Am I dreaming too big?

Sixteen-years-old and living on the verge of eviction with her brother Samuel, Am I dreaming too big, to her, feels like the most fitting question considering her circumstances.

“It’s about a teenage girl trying to figure out who she is, sort of in the shadows of Hollywood and all the bright lights,” said C.A. Johnson in a video on Playbill, where she, director Kate Whoriskey, and the cast discuss the show.

All the Natalie Portmans Playbill
Joshua Boone and Kara Young in All the Natalie Portmans | Photo Cred: Daniel J. Vasquez

“And you’re watching this family struggle with day-to-day life and also with the possibility of what comes next,” she went on. “There’s a depth in [Johnson’s] work that you don’t always see,” added Whoriskey.

As the show’s synopsis on Playbill describes her, Keyonna is “too smart, too queer, and too lonely to fit in,” and as much as she wishes for a better tomorrow, dreaming is what gets her there faster, even when she is not there yet.

Yet it persists: Am I dreaming too big? 

To Keyonna, the question might feel even more taunting than just merely daunting, because, at her worst, it seems to diminish her space in the world.

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Kara Young and Elise Kibler in All the Natalie Portmans | Photo Cred: Daniel J. Vasquez

Yet at her best and at her worst, dreaming is a miraculous serendipity. In it, she finds her hope and her inspiration. In it, she feels closer to the person she wishes to be, and as if answering her own question, she learns that there’s no such thing as “dreaming too big.”

She is not disillusioned when every so often she escapes into fantasies of her own and into her role model Natalie Portman’s many worlds of glitz, glamour, and success. Dreaming for her is just so saving.

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Elise Kibler in All the Natalie Portmans | Photo Cred: Daniel J. Vasquez

Johnson, in all of her previous plays, that includes “Thirst,” “The Climb,” “An American Feast,” and “Mother Tongue,” does not withhold from drawing on the sublimities of women’s lived lives whilst grounding them in a sense of reality that’s rendered resonant to the audience.

For “All the Natalie Portmans,” she takes those already high-order elements from her previous plays and employs them in ways that feel — well, frankly — real, rich, raw. Cathartic, really.


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Cathartic in the very terms that writers and philosophers of old had expected from theater and literature, even if they did not fully understand the specifics of what those arts entailed.

Aristotle, for instance, as opposed to those like Plato, believed in the therapeutic element of theater. Theater, he once claimed, should elicit in the viewers’ deep emotional sentiments until those sentiments are purged and the viewers leave the theater feeling uplifted.

Although theatrical plays are for the most part fictional, willing a suspension of disbelief whilst watching them is necessary. In doing so, theater can teach its audience so much about what’s ultimately unspeakable in the ways of humanity and life.

And “All the Natalie Portmans” evokes just that: a sense of catharsis and yet the kind that exceeds any notion of a suspension of disbelief.

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Montego Glover and Kara Young in All the Natalie Portmans | Photo Cred: Daniel J. Vasquez

It doesn’t need a suspension of disbelief. Yes, Keyonna delves into fantastical worlds of her muse, Natalie Portman, but it’s all movingly truthful.

Haven’t there been moments in all of our lives, especially for those of us who are less than privileged, when we’ve dreamed so hard to the point that we’ve fallen so deep into both a kind of heavenly world infused with our dreams and also into a deep and dark pit, where all we’ve felt is envy towards everything we wish for but do not have?

What’s the harm in dreaming “too” big?

Alongside her cast members — which include Elise Kibler, Renika Williams, Joshua Boone, and tony nominee Montego Glover — Kara Young, who plays Keyonna, feels blessed that she gets to step into her shoes every day. 


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“I feel like I am absolutely an extension [of Keyonna]. We deal a lot with the same issues, and there are just so many blurred lines for me in regards to stepping into her shoes and building with her on this journey,” said Young in a phone interview.

“I feel like we are going to be building, all the way until the end.”

And the chemistry of the cast is what facilitates that very building. Young says that everyone on the team is always in the so-called “lab,” where they are constantly looking for new things, digging deeper into the characters.

For Kara, unveiling more and more about Keyonna is like “unlocking [her own] conscience [and Kara’s] at the same time.” 

Johnson and Whoriskey’s intense research on the human condition helps further excavate from within the actors their vision for their characters, and Young says that she is always so fascinated by the detail-oriented, passionate leaders.

Johnson has written the brilliant lines, which the actors are compelled to fill in, and Whoriskey has directed brilliantly all the in-betweens so precisely so that she could get to the “Shakespearean” of each of the play’s scenes.

Young expressed:

“And it’s so weird because sometimes [under Johnson and Whoriskey’s leadership] you feel like you’re in it that you don’t even know you’re in it — and then when it happens, you’re like ‘Oh ok, yeah.’”

When asked, however, why Keyonna necessarily needs to delve into the world of her muse, what is the purpose of it, Young noted a fact doubly important.

Everyone goes through the motions of grief and loss differently and when someone like Keyonna does not have access to therapy, her only way of accessing her world is through her muse, through her imagination, through her dreams.


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Natalie Portman’s worlds are Keyonna’s way of coping with her distress. Within all this excavation of character through actor and vice versa, there lies a beautiful irony, especially for Kara and Keyonna. 

Though it’s so excruciatingly difficult for Keyonna to access her own world, independent from her muse, Kara is intentionally more self-aware of Keyonna, whilst in her shoes, than Keyonna is of herself.

That self-awareness — or more so, general awareness — is what every audience member should take away from the show: how certain marginalized groups in society, to which Keyonna belongs, are always told that their feelings are invalid, or that they shouldn’t feel them in the first place.

“We’re constantly feeling beings, and at the same time a lot of us, brown people, and I can’t generalize, I am not supposed to generalize, but we are often taught that we are not supposed to feel,” said Young.

“The world is constantly bogging us down, kicking us down, making it absolutely impossible to escape, to escape injustice.” 


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The play is about grief, loss, imagination, dreams, media, socialization, family, identity, self-discovery, but it’s more than that… It’s about the kind of depth that cannot merely be read about. It must be experienced. It must be seen. It must be heard.

“Enter [this play’s world] with an open heart. Enter this world, this very real world, for a lot of people, very real reality, with an open heart,” Young said regarding what she hopes the audience takes away. “And lean in.”

Get tix for All the Natalie Portmans here