OK, I got it. For all you other newbies who have this same problem, wha tyou have to do is use a placeholder like a4j:ouputPanel to contain the components that you are trying to control the rendering for. You can find the details in the developer guide section 6.4.3.
1) add ajaxSingle="true" to supports which should populate other components.
2) make sure you not trying tio reRender elements which ocnditionally rendered. reRender it's parent instead (wrap them with outputPanels.)