After 25 years, Jaston Williams is ready to leave Tuna for Las Vegas
Jaston Williams’ birthday is the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, so he’s always felt a strong connection to the event which he’s more than happy to relate in his inimitable way.
“I saw an interview of this one guy. He was smoking a cigarette and he was really calm. “‘It had to do with Judy Garland,’ he said. “‘Judy had just died and we were not in the mood. People were upset. But the cops just kept coming and the rioting was getting crazier.’ Then one of the rioters shouted, “‘Catch the cops and fuck ‘em!’ The cops said, “‘We are outta here.’ You never know what a weapon is until you use it.”
Nothing like a little gay panic to launch a civil rights movement.
It seems fitting that Williams would find an amusing way to describe a brutal riot. Although his resume includes numerous examples of his acting and writing, rarely does he use the words “actor” or “playwright” to identify himself; instead, he defines his profession as “satirist.” And he can dig his satiric sword deep.
“I just can’t stand that Ann Coulter,” he fumes, “I could yank out every hair on her Adam’s apple. She keeps saying, “‘Well, my book is selling really well.’ I want to ask her, “‘Yeah? How do sales stand up to “‘Mein Kampf’?”
Having a June 28 birthday has helped Williams maintain his activism and his outrage he slathers venom not just on Coulter, but equally across those on the Right, including Karl Rove (“he’s beneath contempt; I couldn’t be in the same room with him I’d have to take a shower”), President Bush (“the word is nuclear not nuke-u-ler, as our president says”) and Laura Schlessinger.
For their latest performance, Williams and Sears tailored a show specifically for the Turtle Creek Chorale, which contained even more frontal attacks than usual on politicians and homophobia.
“It was so much fun,” he says. “It does not get any better than Tim Seelig. Every so often you work with someone who’s a perfectionist and a consummate professional. I was hesitant to do this. I said this is gonna be hell. But Dr. Seelig ran the rehearsals like clockwork three hours and we were out of there. I thought, finally, we’ve found some homosexuals who don’t run late! I’ve had as much fun as I’ve ever had.”
But Williams admits that with each passing year, sharing his homespun politicking on stage has taken its toll. Which has led Williams and his writing and acting partner Joe Sears to take a big step: Add a fourth and final play to their famous Tuna Trilogy.
“We’re doing a new play with Tuna coming out soon. It’s basically “‘Tuna Does Vegas,’ although we haven’t named it yet,” Williams says. “Bertha and Arles decide to go to Vegas to renew their wedding vows and everyone ends up having a reason to go.”
It will be a swan song in more ways that one. Although the show will tour throughout Texas, the long-term plan is to move it to a permanent home in Las Vegas. Period. As the performers sidle up to age 60, they insist the touring life will soon be at an end for them.
We’re tired of being on the road,” Williams sighs. “You don’t need B.B. King to tell you when the thrill is gone.”
How many times, though, have this dynamic drag duo assured audiences that this was the final tour only to do it again and again?
“You mean it when you say it,” Williams insists.
This time, the resolve seems to be there. A few years ago, Williams and his partner adopted a special needs child from China, now 9. Touring requires frequent absences from both of them, and Williams sounds resolute that 25 years is enough.
Not that anyone (Sears and Williams aside) ever expected their comedies about small-town Texas life to last anywhere near so long. Their success has broken a lot of rules that show business operates under, Williams says a fact that brings him no small amount of smug satisfaction.
“People said to us, “‘You can get a good year or two out of this show, but you will have to run it solid with only a two-week break each a year.’ We said, No, we want to do it for a while, then take some time off, then do it again. They said it would never work.”
But it did work. The Tuna plays “A Tuna Christmas,” “Red, White and Tuna” and the one that launched it all, “Greater Tuna” (now on stage at the Eisemann Center) have brought Williams untold acclaim from critics and audiences, largely against the odds.
“I said I would never go to New York unless could do my own show. I was told I’d never do your own, but we did it. We opened “‘A Tuna Christmas’ on Broadway and the reviews were glowing” except, notably, the New York Times. But even that criticism didn’t last.
“Mel Gussow, the Times critic, later said to me he was in the minority about us. And we have since gotten lots of good review from the Times,” Williams says.
“And,” he adds, “Gussow is dead now, so we outlasted him, anyway.”
Eisemann Center, 2351 Performance Drive, Richardson. Through July 2. Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $15-$45. 972-744-4650.
Q&A WITH VERA CARP AND DIDI SNAVELY
Jaston Williams was joined during the interview by a few familiar Tuna residents who agreed to answer questions about life in Texas’ third-smallest town.
Question. Kinky Friedman will be on the ballot for governor in the fall. How does having a Jewish singer possibly becoming the first independent Texas governor since Sam Houston go over in Tuna?
Vera Carp (pictured). Look at the candidates. You have Rick Perry, who if you could get him to wear shoes would clean up good. You have the woman and Friedman together, they look like a bus-and-truck production of “Li’l Abner.”
Q. Does Tuna get all the press about celebrity couples like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie?
Vera. Yes, but the only thing I have to say about Angelina is, when she puts on a swimsuit you have to spend all day reading her. She’s just had a baby, so one days she’s gonna be a grandmother. Can’t you imagine her grandkids seeing her and saying, “Mee-maw, why do you look like wallpaper?”
Q. Gay Pride Month is almost over. What is it like in Tuna?
Didi Snavely. Very, very quiet. What we do is, we don’t pick on Joe Bob that’s it.
Q. You’ve been on tour for almost 25 years. What effect does that have on the economy of Tuna?
Didi. It’s been hard. We only have 88 residents, so when 20 of them leave town it hurts. They have to close the Tastee Kreeme when Joe Bob is out of town he accounts for a third of their business.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, June 30, 2006.