New York Times
Sunday April 14 2002
Last month’s Oscars may offer encouragement to rising stars of color everywhere, but Cajai Fellows Johnson of Bloomfield has not been sitting around waiting for role models like Halle Berry and Denzel Washington to unlatch doors to her future.
After years of singing and dancing lessons, Cajai recently landed a leading role in Disney’s first national road company of “The Lion King,” which opens on April 27 in Denver. She is already rehearsing in Denver and will spend the next six months touring the country with the cast, crew, truckloads of scenery, and, of course, her mother.
Cajai, after all, is only 10. A student at St. Thomas the Apostle School in West Hartford, she is young enough that she still sleeps with a stuffed dog named Wobbles, yet old enough to have achieved full Actors’ Equity status and to have realized her fondest goal.
“The first time I saw ‘The Lion King,’ I was 5,” she recalled recently during rehearsals in New York, “and I was so mad because I knew I wanted to do that so bad. But I never dreamed, never even dreamed, I would get there.”
Poised, polished and unfailingly polite, Cajai may be petite in stature, but she is no ordinary fifth grader. She is unique, like her first name (pronounced kahJAY, with a soft “j”), formed by combining the first letters of her parents’ first names.
Her mother, Catherine Fellows, is the longtime director of the dance department at Central Connecticut State University. Her father, Jaimoe (born Johnie Lee Johnson), has been performing since 1969 as one of the two original drummers with the Allman Brothers Band. As a result, Cajai has attended the Grammys. She’s met Bette Midler, James Brown, Little Richard and the Rolling Stones. She has also virtually grown up on tour, having spent nearly every summer since birth traveling with the Allman Brothers.
“Cajai knows about being on the road,” said her mother. Upon learning that she had been chosen for the tour, “Her first line was, ‘Oh, do we get to have our own bus?’ ” In fact, the cast will travel by plane. The road show will remain for several weeks in each city it visits, including Denver, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa.
Ms. Fellows learned about its cast openings for children when one of her students noticed a magazine advertisement. She encouraged her daughter to apply. “She was like, ‘This part’s perfect for you!’ ” Cajai said. ” ‘You have the look, you have the attitude, you have the smile, you have everything that’s perfect for it.’ “
One thing that wasn’t perfect was the timing. The auditions were scheduled in New York the following day, when Cajai and her mother were both to dance in “The Nutcracker” at Central Connecticut. Undeterred, Ms. Fellows sent her daughter’s head shot and resume by overnight mail. The package was to arrive by 10 a.m., she said. “At 10:15, I got a call.” Cajai was invited to audition when “The Nutcracker” was over, two weeks later. Three call-backs ensued, and she eventually landed a role.
Cajai had been chosen to play Young Nala among the several hundred children who had auditioned from coast to coast. “First of all, she’s unbelievably bright,”said Jeff Lee, the associate director who helped launch the Broadway show, as well as productions in Los Angeles, London, Toronto, Germany and Japan. “The girl’s incredibly sharp, and that carries with it, I think, a certain amount of elegance. She’s also certainly an attractive young girl, and needless to say, she delivers on the talent end of what we need vocally and as an actress.”
Cajai had remained calm throughout the audition process. But when her mother told her she had landed the role, she jumped. “I must have gone like five feet in the air,” she said. “I was screaming and crying. And I called almost everyone I know.”
Although she appeared in her first ballet with her mother when Cajai was 18 months old, her only previous acting experience was in “Fatima,” a musical performed last year in Bloomfield. Long before “The Lion King,” however, she was lured by the smell of the greasepaint. Like many girls growing up today, playing, to her, meant making up plays. “This is the type of kid who created shows and brought the neighbors in,” Ms. Fellows said. “She directed shows and pulled together costumes and wrote lines.” She resents it whenever anyone suggests that she may have pushed her daughter to aim for fame. “I haven’t pushed her at all,” she said. “She’s pulled me!”
Cajai has been dancing with her mother “since she could walk” and was first enrolled in dance lessons at age 2. She also studies voice and has a private skating coach, Sylvia Fontana, who competed for Italy in the Winter Olympics. Although Cajai also aspires to skate professionally (next stop: ‘The Lion King” on ice?), her main passion remains the theater. “I love being on stage!” she said. “All of my friends, when they go on stage, they’re always, like, so nervous. But I’m just totally excited. Once I get out there, it’s like I’m in a whole other world.”
Jaimoe understands just what she means. His own childhood in Mississippi was once animated with Disney dreams. He even applied to be a Mouseketeer in the mid-1950’s, but was rejected. There were no black Mouseketeers until 1977. Now, nearly every cast member of “The Lion King” is African-American. “It just shows how far they’ve come,” Jaimoe said about Disney. Having come quite far himself — the Allman Brothers are about to embark on another national tour — he is ecstatic to see his daughter following in his show-biz footsteps.
He also expects her to carry on another family tradition. Fifteen years ago, he legally changed his name to Jaimoe. Just Jaimoe. That’s all it says on his passport, bank statements and bills. “Not that I’m in this category,” he explained, “but if you say ‘Cher,’ if you say ‘Liberace,’ people know who you’re talking about.” He hopes the same will be true someday when people say “Cajai.” But for now, she is under contract to Disney as Cajai Fellows Johnson.
That contract requires her to appear in three to five shows per week.She will alternate in the role with another child, as will the two boys who play Simba. On the road, she is being tutored with those three children, with homework mailed from her school so she doesn’t fall behind. Her mother has arranged a leave of absence from her work and Jaimoe will visit periodically (their tours intersect in Denver). But she will not return home until her tour is done.
Many friends back home are eager to see the show, Cajai said. “They’re like, ‘You’ll have to tell us when it’s in Hartford.’ ” But it’s not scheduled to visit Connecticut, and if it ever does, Cajai is unlikely to be involved by then. Her contract becomes void if she grows 2 inches. Most kids outgrow the role within a year. “Generally we find that six months is like a cut-off point,” said Mr. Lee, “because one of three things happens: They get too big, their voice changes, or they get bored.” Boredom now, however, seems unimaginable. Cajai just can’t wait to be queen. As Young Simba’s feisty sidekick, she speaks, dances, sings several solo lines, rides what appears to be a giant ostrich and wrestles Simba to the ground, threatening fiercely, “Hit ya again!”
Although the children appear only in Act I, they all play pivotal roles. “They’re carrying the first act of a huge show,” said Aubrey Lynch, the associate horeographer. Yet thanks to her air of confidence, he said he believed Cajai is easily up to the task. “You can’t be fooled by her petite prettiness,” he said. “She’s a tough young lady. And technically, yeah, she can dance beautifully, she sings beautifully and she can act.” To be considered for the show, said Mr. Lee, children must excel at all
“We’ve had kids who’ve come in, sung up a storm, acted great, looked great, and they can’t move at all,” he said. “Or their body goes dead when they start acting.” Even so, he discourages youngsters from taking drama lessons, convinced that these may even prove counterproductive by inhibiting their natural quality as children. “There’s a spirit and an energy about them, as kids, that’s very important for us,” he said.
Confidence is also crucial, Mr. Lynch said. In that regard, Cajai has some advice. When she told people she planned to audition, some of them said, ” ‘Cajai, how do you expect to get it? We’re all just kind of here in small, little West Hartford,’ ” she said.
Cajai has a message for them and for anyone else who dares to dream big. “Anyone can do anything,” she said, “if you really put your mind to it.”