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“A Little Guy Who’s Funny”: Jaston Williams reater Tuna has taken Jaston Williams a long way, from the Texas Panhandle to Broadway and beyond. “I grew up in small towns in the Panhandle,” he says, “and I guess I handled it pretty well. I wasn’t big enough to play football, but I was funny. If you make those old boys laugh, they won’t beat you up. They love a little guy who’s funny if it’s not at their expense.” Many years later, he and a friend from Crosbyton \(where Williams attended high way from home: in Venice, during the festival of Carnevale. His friend marked the occasion by wearing a Texas Tech Red Raider Band uniform. “It was wonderful to be part of something that had been going on for centuries,” said Williams, “and we both felt it. She looked at me and said, ‘We’re a long way from the Panhandle.’ I never felt so free. And it was wonderful to be with somebody who knew where the roots were.” Williams was reminiscing last summer at the Observer office, where we caught him one afternoon en route to rehearsal for Red, White and Tuna. Although he can now look back on his small-town upbringing with the wry humor that sustains the Tuna plays, he admits, “It’s not that funny when you’re there.” Of the numerous Tuna characters he portrays, he says he identifies most closely with young Stanley Bumiller, the would-be artist who finally leaves town for good. “So many leave those small towns with hate and anguish,” says Williams, “and a sense of uselessness.” In Red, White and Tuna, Stanley’s beloved censorious neighbors will never let Stanley live down his ne’er-do-well reputation, and she gets him a ticket out of town. Yet Williams acknowledges that this third and presumably final Tuna play is less angry than the other two, and he says it is more about forgiveness. “Forgiveness is a major component in growth,” says Williams, “and we wanted this play to be about change, or the lack of it.” That too, he says, is partly in reaction to his upbringing. “West Texas is an and country they make the rules very tough and Jaston Williams Allan Pogue clear. It’s like a desert civilization anywhere: founded on Bibles or Korans. The spirit of forgiveness is not taught there. It’s considered a weakness, when it’s actually a real sign of strength.” Williams, an activist off-stage, particularly on environmental issues, is not so forgiving of much of what he sees in contemporary politics. He’s been working against the proposed Sierra Blanca nuclear waste dump, and he’s a strong defender of Bill Clinton. Of right-wing attacks on the President, he says bluntly, “I get so infuriated at these professional fascists and I really think it’s time we start calling fascists by their real names. The last time I checked, Clinton carried over thirty states. The public has spoken.” Although there’ ve been jokes about a possible “Halloween Tuna” or some other sequel, Williams believes this is the last of the series. “If there’s another one in us,” he says \(he co-writes the plays with fellow actor Joe Sears and director Ed Tuna.'” After the current play’s Texas tour this summer and fall, plans are to take it to Broadway sometime next year. Meanwhile, Williams says he and Sears are eager to do other kinds of drama, from Shakespeare to Sondheim. “I’m very grateful for Tuna, it’s paid for the house and it takes care of my mother and the family. But it’s time to go on to other things.” M.K. look at the whole country,” says Williams. “And I think we’re much better writers now, and we see more in the characters than we did when we began.” The playwrights have also grown a little bit more softhearted over the years, it appears, as they have even come to grant Stanley Bumiller ex-post-facto absolution for the apparent murder of a judge, the darkly hilarious incident which closes Greater Tuna. Bumiller’s rebellious energy gave that play much of its unexpected political bite, for it suggested the potential real consequences of the stultifying oppression found in much small town life. The biggest laugh line in the current production has its particularly Texan political edge, as Stanley informs his Aunt that rich kids don’t go to prison when they mess up in Texas. “Oh, where do they go?” asks Aunt Pearl. Answers Stanley, “They go to S.M.U.” But the cynical shadow had already begun to lift in the more farcical and sentimental A Tuna Christmas, and one senses in the new play that the playwrights perhaps because of their own astonishing success, as the out-of-work actors who somehow won the theatrical lottery have inevitably mellowed over the years, and have even found a way to come to terms with their small-town upbringings, “somewhere between hell and San Angelo.” Perhaps if Stanley can be forgiven, and Arles Struvie and Bertha Bumiller can overcome their differences and make a new start, and Amber and Star can come home again maybe one day even Vera will see the light. Then again, maybe not. I saw this production before the Starr-Clinton follies had reached full boil, and I am betting that as the show goes on to New York, Williams and Sears and Howard will find ways to suck that comic energy into the play, and the jokes will continue to provide a satiric microcosm of our national foolishness. When I read that Ken Starr’s preacher father, after seeing a neighbor milking a cow in her shorts, had thereupon sermonized his congregation on the proper attire of Christian women, I immediately recognized Tuna territory: we are all small-towners, and the Homecoming Committee of the Junior Chamber of Commerce remains very much in charge of our public life. Or, as Jaston Williams told the Observer, “If J. Edgar Hoover were around and in power right now, he would be one happy man in a dress.” OCTOBER 9, 1998 WO, THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27