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Rheta Johnson: Time for your close-up

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

 

When I was a kid in knee socks held up with rubber bands from the produce aisle, my fourth-grade teacher scribbled a note on my report card. Rheta has a flair for drama. 

 

I think she based that on a lame play I wrote about Choctaw Chief Pushmataha, which I forced my friends to perform during history period. I was -- you guessed it -- Chief Pushmataha. Hey, there's power in the pen. The costumes were easy: feathers in our headbands. 

 

I tucked that casual teacher's comment in my undimpled brain, a lace hankie in a back pocket. For a few years, I dreamed I'd someday clock some serious stage time -- between my day-job duties as an equine veterinarian and Lois Lane newspaperwoman, of course.  

 

As a student at Montgomery's Robert E. Lee High, I tried out for one or two school plays but never made the cut. Lee was a big population, after all, and I was more suited to wearing a bed sheet toga for Latin Week. I never felt so left out as sitting in the dark auditorium while friends emoted in the spotlight. 

 

Yes, the prospect of being involved with theater seemed exciting, but I went in another direction, headfirst into a profession that allowed no time for hobbies, precious little for family. Newspapers want your every waking moment, not to mention your soul. But I always remembered that note about my undiscovered "flair for drama." I figured Miss Watkins knew what she was writing about. 

 

Suddenly last month, into my sixth decade, words I helped write with friend Johnny Williams came alive onstage in Pell City, Alabama, an unlikely place where I've never lived or worked and have no family connections. Yes, Virginia, there is a Pell City theater. 

 

I've written something every day of my adult life, but never have I had as much fun as being a small part of a community production called "Hiram; Becoming Hank Williams." Finally, I felt part of the theater magic. And it is magic, akin to printing your own photos in a red-lit darkroom. 

 

The process begins like one of those jokes about a preacher and a rabbi and a priest going into a bar. A high-school ROTC student, a Pell City factory worker, a retired naval officer and a teacher go into the theater. The lights dim and, suddenly, they become, onstage, an aspiring country music singer, an old bluesman, a smarmy evangelist and a jealous sibling. The image surfaces. 

 

And all it took was lots of hard work, thrift-store costumes, suspension of disbelief, a set designed by a theater major and lights controlled by high-school kids. Oh, yes, and talent. Lots and lots of that.  

 

From casting to dress rehearsal, the transformation was astounding. I sat in several rehearsals and basked in the warmth of people who cared mightily about what they were doing for free. There was no money for the arts, of course. This is the United States. 

 

But nobody really seemed to mind, and at the cast party after three performances that 1,000 people saw and applauded, the actors and crew all seemed happy to earn a red T-shirt and accolades. 

 

You don't sit and wait for the reviews in the morning dailies anymore; there are no newspapers to speak of. But they waited for their friends to post good thoughts on Facebook, or their children to phone and say: "Wow, Mom. You were terrific." 

 

And the thrill is the same, whatever the method of transmitting approval.  

 

I got a T-shirt. And I'll never wear it without thinking of my fourth-grade teacher and her off-hand remark in the part of the report card that personalized things. Rheta has a flair for drama. 

 

And, finally, I used it. 

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson's most recent book is "Hank Hung the Moon ... And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts." Comments are welcomed at [email protected] 

 

 

 

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