Jaston Williams is back with more tales of Texas life in his one-man show ‘Blame It on Valentine’
Anyone who grew up in the dusty plains of West Texas probably has some stories to tell of crazy characters, kooky family and outrageous behavior meant to cut the boredom. Jaston Williams simply is better at telling them.
Of course, he’s had a lot of practice. In the Tuna plays, which he co-created with Joe Sears and Ed Howard, Williams created the fictional world of Texas’ third smallest town, populated by quirky, hilarious people who never really existed. But in his one-man shows — including Blame It on Valentine, Texas, which opens this week at the Eisemann Center for a five-performance run — Williams doesn’t have to make up anything: He just puts his life out there for all to see.
“Back in those days it was pretty bleak” out in West Texas, Williams recounts on the phone from his home in Lockhart. “It was exactly like The Last Picture Show, only a decade later: that kind of town, that kind of atmosphere. But there were amazing people who lived there and grew up there. One boy in our class became a preeminent nuclear scientist!”
And another grew up to be Jaston Williams, one of Texas’ shining humorists. And the proof is in the performance.
Valentine is a series of monologues, all written by Williams, that tell actual tales from his life, starting in childhood when he became a star at age 4, and advancing through about a decade ago, as he went to China to adopt his son Song. The fact everything is all true only makes the Tuna plays seem tame by comparison.
Not all of the pieces were originally written for this show. Williams is a master short-story writer; his monologues read like David Sedaris with a twang. He grouped this particular set together a few years ago, when he did a fundraiser on Valentine’s Day.
“I found that when I put this particular grouping together, it is a stronger [show] — they serve each other better than in their original configuration,” he says.
In one of the stories, A Piece of Chalk, he discusses being enrolled in ballet class; in another, he explains how his older brother’s pet pig nearly ate him alive a la Hannibal … until a ranch hand in his family’s employ saved his life. And one of his favorites is about the classmate who taught him to cuss.
“When I was in the fifth grade, I was having a terrible year,” he says. “I was being picked on a lot. But there was this big boy — he played football and basketball and always had a scab on his nose or his knee — but had this huge heart. He realized that I was funny — and he was also funny. He hated to see anyone picked on, so he taught me to cuss. I’ve been trying to stop ever since — but it’s fucking hard! You can tell how well it’s working from the text of this interview!”
The two have remained lifelong friends. “It’s a piece about two boys who could not be more different but are attracted to certain qualities in each other. He really saved my life.”
It’s the humanity that oozes through all of Williams’ work. In one piece, Cowboy Noises, Williams details the day his life changed forever: the night the Beatles first performed on American television.
“My father was slightly less upset at Hitler in May of 1945 than he was by the Beatles — just a little,” Williams jokes. “He went berserk and defied me to enjoy it. So the next day, my mother took me to a Woolworth’s store 20 miles away and bought me a Beatles wig. She was the gas truck at the fire.” His mother is a looming presence in Williams’ life. In Killing Mama, he relates how he was forced to convince his strong-willed, 85-year-old mother to give up driving. It was practically a suicide mission.
“She was a force of nature — people still talk about her in West Texas, Williams asserts, a tough braggadocio bleeding through. “Texans spend a lot of time pretending daddy runs that show, but when mama really decides to be a pain, nothing gets done. I’ve got a lot of that blood in me — it’s still there. My partner, Kevin, who never met my mother, will see me do something and say, ‘This must have something to do with her.’”
Take, for instance, Williams’ admitted ornery quality — surely inherited from Mama. His mother was an elementary school teacher until age 82, having instructed generations of students.
And she wasn’t shy about using corporal punishment. Williams thinks we’ve lost something in that.
“When I was in grade school you could still beat children — a thread in our national fabric that no longer glistens, and I’m all in favor of bringing it back,” he says. “I’ve considered running for school board in Lockhart on a platform of corporal punishment of the parents: Just bring ’em in, get that lesbian gym teacher to swing that doweling rod and I swear to you, little Mimi will get that paper in on time — doubled-spaced and correct!”
With rich characters being a staple of West Texas life, Williams’ quick wit must have served him well … right? Not always.
“I had a teacher who never thought I was funny. I don’t know why. One time she said to me, ‘Where’s that sense of humor gonna get you!?’ Well, it got me to Broadway and she’s livin’ in Amarillo!”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 11,, 2013.