Before her death in 1978, comedienne Totie Fields was widely admired for her courage. In the last two years of her life, the brassy Bionic Yenta survived eye surgery, two heart attacks, a mastectomy and a leg amputation. After each crisis, she bounced back to take her show on the road again, until a fatal third coronary, at 48, struck her on the eve of a Las Vegas opening.
Much of Totie’s moxie has rubbed off on her elder daughter, Jody Johnston, 29. As director of the Rainbow Company, a Vegas-based troupe of child actors many of whom are handicapped, Jody never allows herself or her charges the luxury of an emotional burnout. Says one mother: “She’s one part compassion, one part intellect, one part despot and all guts.”
In 1975 Johnston was teaching dramatics in the Las Vegas public schools when the city asked her to start a children’s theater group. The idea of admitting disabled youngsters came from Totie. “She telephoned and said, ‘JOOODY,’ and I knew right away she wanted something,” Jody recalls. “She said, ‘A nice man called to see if you’d teach handicapped kids. I told him of course you would.’ ”
And she did. Eighty of the 450 youngsters who attend her weekly classes are disabled, but when it comes to casting a play, the best actor gets the part, wheelchair or no wheelchair. Members of the company suffer from mental retardation, cerebral palsy and other crippling ailments, blindness and deafness. To understand their problems, other students try Jody’s “awareness activities,” such as taping their hands into fists and trying to eat lunch or button their clothes.
The Rainbow repertory includes standard children’s plays like The Wizard of Oz and Oliver! But the group also stages original works, most of them written by Jody’s playwright in residence, Brian Kral, 25. A performance of Kral’s Special Class, a one-act exploration of the world of handicapped children, last year won Rainbow an award from the American Theater Association as the U.S.’s best new children’s theater company.
The players learn to cope with their handicaps by coping with Jody, who alternates as warm mother figure and tough taskmaster. “For their lives to be full,” she says, “they have to have pillow fights and laughter—and bawling out.” Says one of her fragile students: “She taught us that we are equal, even if it’s harder for some of us.”
Jody breezed through Smith College in three years, majoring in drama and winning a B.A. in 1973. Though she wanted to continue in the theater, her mother made her get a teacher’s certificate first, just to have something to fall back on. Mother knew best. Jody decided that she was “a mediocre set designer” but a natural schoolmarm. “When they threw me into a class of first-graders,” she says, “I found I enjoyed it.” In 1976 she picked up a master’s at the University of Nevada in children’s theater, a field that happily combined her two favorite pursuits.
Divorced since 1979 following a three-year marriage to a TV station staffer, Jody has thrown all her energy into the Rainbow Company. At 4’11”, though, she is not endowed with limitless stamina. Recently she learned of her second ulcer, and occasionally, she admits, “I get brownouts.” When that happens, she goes to the dogs—the cherished pack of champion clumber spaniels that share her Vegas house. Still, she has inherited her mother’s drive. “Mom gave us a sense of our own worth,” she says. And that is what Jody passes on to her kids.