‘Greater Tuna’ star offers a revealing glimpse into his extraordinary life.
By Marene Gustin
Following The Great Tamale Incident of 1976—when president Gerald Ford visited San Antonio for the Fiesta River Parade and ate a tamale without shucking it—first lady Betty Ford served as the parade’s grand marshal, and Jaston Williams and Joe Sears were both there to see it.
The comedy duo of Williams and Sears, who would later become famous for their hilarious Greater Tuna plays, created chaos on the riverbank.
“There was a long delay because of the Secret Service,” Williams recalls. “After a long time, Joe and I just started yelling, ‘Float her down, float her down!’”
Suddenly they were surrounded by agents, missed the parade, and finally headed over to a gay bar with the agents following close behind.
“That was probably a first for the Secret Service,” he laughs.
That’s just one of the true stories Williams tells in his one-man autobiographical performance, I’m Not Lying!, which comes to Galveston’s Grand 1894 Opera House this month. Written in 2003 and first performed in Austin, Williams is rewriting sections of the play to add new stories. He calls the current version I’m Not Lying! 2.
For those who only know Williams from his portrayal of the wacky inhabitants of Greater Tuna (the second-smallest town in Texas), I’m Not Lying! 2 is a revealing glimpse into the actor’s life.
“I’ve had an amazing life,” he says. “It’s been everything but dull.”
That’s an understatement. In one of the play’s vignettes he tells of attending a Renaissance party at Dennis Hopper’s home in Taos, New Mexico, dressed in a yellow chicken suit with balloons. “It was a Renaissance farm animal,” he says. It’s a costume he also wears in the play, while telling the story. “It was in the ’70s, and you knew it was a good party because there was a rumor going around that Bob Dylan was there.”
Williams is the child of a schoolteacher and a farmer. He grew up in West Texas, a slight boy who took dance classes and used comedy as a way to avoid being bullied.
“Those big farm boys were like, ‘Don’t beat him up, he’s funny!’ So they’d beat up someone else,” he says.
In West Texas, Williams was expected to marry young. He did so and had a son, Shane, who was killed in a car accident in 1995. But the marriage ended early, and he became a nomad, moving between Texas, Taos, and San Francisco.
“The first time I went there I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Williams says of San Francisco. “The ’70s were such an amazing time. It was the beginning of the gay revolution. Sadly, so many of those wonderful people were lost during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Sometimes I wonder how many plays, how many films were never written because of their loss.”
Fast-forward to 2001, and he was back in Texas where he met musician Kevin Mooney, who now teaches jazz history at Texas State University.
“Here was a jazz musician who had never smoked weed, never been arrested,” Williams says of his husband of 11 years. “And I had never had a boyfriend who hadn’t been on the Post Office wall.” But it worked out, and the two eventually adopted a 7-year-old Chinese boy with special needs. Song, now 20, still lives with his fathers and is the light of their lives. Williams says that they got the best child in China, out of millions.
The family lives in Lockhart, outside of Austin. Friends who lived there had invited them to visit for dinner. As Williams tells it, they went to Lockhart for a hamburger and ended up buying a mid-century Palm Beach-style home that they eventually renovated.
“Kevin was very excited about moving to a small town,” he recalls. “He thought it was going to be so perfect. So we’re driving around town and I say, ‘See that old couple over ➝ there? They’re saying, “There go those two big queers with that Chinese orphan!”’”
But he says it’s turned out fine, particularly when people see how loved Song is and how well he’s been raised. “He always says please and thank you, and Texans love that,” Williams says.
As for his upcoming trip to Galveston, Williams says The Grand is his favorite place to work, both because of executive director Maureen Patton and because of the beauty of the theater. He also loves the restaurants on the island, particularly Rudy & Paco Restaurant and Bar, a Mexican spot near the theater.
Although this comic genius shows no sign of slowing down, for now he is finished with political humor.
“Trump has killed satire,” Williams says. “How can you make that more ridiculous? I can’t even turn on the news before noon any more.”
What: Jaston Williams in I’m Not Lying!
When: June 23, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Where: Galveston’s Grand 1894 Opera House
This article appears in the June 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.