Nobody spins a yarn like Jaston Williams
By Robert Faires, Fri., Oct. 8, 2010
Midway through lunch, Jaston Williams mentions the essay in Pentimento in which Lillian Hellman observes that theatre people love to tell stories. No kidding, and Williams himself is the poster boy for that tendency. You cannot have a conversation with this consummate man of the stage without him launching into some richly embroidered, raucously funny yarn – and more likely half a dozen, with each leaving everyone within earshot, Williams included, with sides heaving with laughter to the point of breathlessness.
Williams will credit his West Texas heritage for his storytelling prowess – something in the territory inspires it, he claims – and anyone familiar with that region would not be inclined to disagree. But you put that Panhandle predilection for yarn-spinning on top of a show folk penchant for stories and, well, you get double-strength tale-telling – 190 proof. As those who have sampled his self-written solo performances I'm Not Lying and Cowboy Noises can testify, the stories therein pack the kick of white lightning. If all you know of this fine actor is his work on Greater Tuna and its sequels – and fear not, Tuna-ficionados, come Thanksgiving, Williams and partner-in-stage-crime Joe Sears will be back with a newly designed production of A Tuna Christmas – you owe it to yourself to see the storyteller in action. When he sat down with the Chronicle to discuss this month's revival of Cowboy Noises at the Long Center, it took just one question to get Williams into telling stories.
Jaston Williams: I can never do a show that I don't bring my brother [Corky] in at some point, because I've never met any individual as unique in character as my brother. In all my years in show business and my former life in crime, I have never known one like that. That we spring from exactly the same gene pool gives me pause. That's one reason I decided to adopt. [laughs] My brother, he is so funny. And shorter than I. Tough, tough. Tough cowboy and could wade into any fight anywhere.
My dad was just crazy, and I loved him so much, but he decided to introduce potato farming to the Texas Panhandle. It had never been done up there. My dad introduced it. Just decided. Now, there was no equipment up there to do it, there weren't the systems, and you had to go up to Idaho and haul it back. But Daddy decided he was going to raise potatoes, and by God, he raised potatoes. And one summer, my brother and I were working for my dad, and the potato market had crashed. Potatoes were just basically worthless. And my dad ran ads on television: He was selling hundred-pound bags of potatoes at the rate of 2 pounds per nickel. I'm not kidding. Just to move 'em. You had to buy a hundred pounds, but it was 2 pounds for a nickel. And I was the potato salesman to all of these idiots in Lubbock who came out and wanted to buy: "Well, cain't I just get 15 pounds?" [laughs] You've driven 40 miles to get eight potatoes? Give me a break! [laughs] So I had to deal with the prairie apes who came to get their potatoes, and my brother was running the crews. So, one day we were sitting there in the shed, and they're not digging that afternoon for some reason, and it is hot, and my dad's gone, and my brother and I are the only ones there, and we're sitting on these lumpy sacks of potatoes and smoking cigarettes and talking about how bad we hate potatoes, and this car pulls up driven by Java man. I describe his wife and three to five itchy children like diseased rabbits warrened in the back. They rattle up, and this idiot flips a nickel into the dust at our feet and says: "There's my nickel. Gimme my 2 pounds of potatoes." And Corky, without taking a breath, just grabs a big russet potato and, as close as I am to you, just bam!, [He just bounced it] right off his head. And he said: "There's yer 2 pounds, you sonofabitch. Now, stick around fer the other 98." [laughs] And then he looked at me and said, "I've lost my sense of humor about these goddamn nickel potatoes." [laughs]
Growing up in West Texas – it's a funny group of people that live out there. They are amazing storytellers and amazing characters. They live in a world that is in so many ways hostile. It's hostile people. It's hostile weather. There's a lot of hostility, and yet there's an amazing vein of humor that seems to run on one side of the highway, and the violence is running on the other, and you never know when they're gonna cross. And these people out there, for all their bluster or seeming detachment from sensitivity or the poetic or whatever, they are amazingly sensitive and amazingly poetic. They choose their moments carefully, and they come out very spontaneously. And at times it's beautiful and funny in the same breath.
There was this woman in our hometown, and she was a dear, dear lady – Mrs. Treat was her name. We all loved Mrs. Treat. You know, in these small towns, when anybody dies, the covered dishes start to arrive. Nobody's going to have to cook a meal. Well, Mrs. Treat was always the first one to the door. I think she went by the hospital and the nursing home. She kept tabs. You know, somebody's goin' down, she's got it. It's frozen. It's ready. All you gotta do is heat it up. [laughs] I describe, when my grandmother died, my next door neighbor lookin' out the door: "Good God, Treat! Miz Treat's at the door with something wrapped in foil. I hope your blue suit's clean enough for a funeral." [laughs] When Miz Treat's at the door at 6 in the morning, somebody's gone. And yet she was a dear, dear person, and it was a beautiful, kind, thoughtful thing that she always did, that they all did.
And these funerals – I talk about my grandfather's funeral, and the one thing you weren't allowed to do out there was cry. I nearly cried at my grandfather's funeral, and my mother pinched the hell out of me: "Don't you dare screw up this funeral by crying." Teeter Combs on the organ doing "Beyond the Sunset," how are you not supposed to cry? Just whippin' that organ. God almighty! It was my first funeral. I didn't know you weren't allowed to cry. So it's that amazing mixture of sadness and humor that is all in there together. People are surprised when I say this, but I'm so glad I grew up there. I couldn't live there again, but I am so grateful that I grew up there.
And as I've gotten older, it's amazing [how] those cultural divisions that we had as children [fade]. There was one boy in high school, he was a year older than I, and his father was the police chief. This boy was a big cowboy – big, big cowboy – and he and I were not friends in any way. We were in totally different circles. There was nothing to say. There was no communication. We didn't mix. Now, I am 59, and Aubrey Stark, who went on to become a lawman, is one of my very best friends. In this world. In. This. World. Conservative Texas lawman, out busting drug dealers and all of that stuff. And what I think really brought him around – I did some of these monologues in Lubbock about a year ago for a benefit, and his wife was a good friend of mine, so he had to come see the shows. But he was on the front row, and we'd been gradually getting friendlier, and he recognized what Kevin [Mooney, Williams' partner] and I were doing with raising this child, and that was very impressive to him and not something he had ever expected to see – two guys adopting a child and raising him – but in that performance something broke with him, and by the end of that show, we were friends. Not just friendly but real friends. And I wouldn't think of going to Lubbock without calling him immediately. I wouldn't think of it.
And another friend of mine there is Sam Medina. He was a district judge – now, he's stepped down now to become a city attorney for Lubbock but a big deal. Sammy was in my senior class. Sammy, growing up in Crosbyton, Texas, had to drive to Lubbock to get his hair cut. He was a Hispanic boy. They would not cut his hair in that little town at the time. And Sammy just kept going. Sammy never batted an eye. He just kept working. Nothing affected him. He went to Tech; he went to law school. And the last time I was there, Sammy and Aubrey and I got together. Sammy was the best defense attorney in Lubbock for years, and Aubrey was a cop, so they knew all the same criminals [laughs], and they started telling law-and-order-in-Lubbock stories. I was there for three days for a reunion, and when I got home to Kevin, I said: "I'm going to bed. I'm sick. I can't breathe." He said, "What's wrong?" I said: "I have laughed [so much] ... I'm wheezed up. My lungs are full." The criminal element in Lubbock as told from the point of view of a cop and a defense attorney who know all the same crooks. And you know, the law-and-order stuff, it's not funny and yet it is. The tragedy runs on one line, and the comedy runs on the other. And we've gotten into adulthood, and we all see each other's side of it. We thought it was just cops or lawyers. No, we're just all humans.
Cowboy Noises runs through Oct. 17, Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30pm; Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3 & 8pm; Sunday 2 & 7pm, at the Rollins Studio Theatre in the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 474-5664 or visit www.thelongcenter.org.