Jaston Williams has been a leading playwright and performer in Austin for some four decades.


Best known in some circles as co-writer and co-star of the hilarious "Greater Tuna" series, which packed the Paramount Theatre and toured the country year after year, he also has appeared in a wide range of roles at Zach Theatre and the State Theater.


For this occasional series, "What We Need to Hear," Williams shared his thoughts on getting through our uncertain times:


When he had finally thrown in the towel on his fight against HIV, my friend Mickey Troncale instructed his family to take him to the hospital. In the hallway, he was placed on a gurney while waiting to be moved to a room. The poor man, now but a wisp of his normal weight, struggled desperately for breath surrounded by his grieving family. At some point a rather burly, all business nurse walked up holding a clipboard and asked him, "Mr. Troncale, when was your last bowel-movement?" In his completely exhausted state he somehow managed to rear his head up and rasp, "1973."



The genius comedian Jonathon Winters once told me to remember that nothing is sacred. He made it clear that some of us have an obligation to bring healing laughter to the others in any and all circumstances.


After 9/11, I was one of many who could never imagine when we would want to laugh again, and I was grateful for odd occurrences, like the fact that my mother passed before that devastating event. Tough as she was, she had lived through two world wars, the Depression, the 1950s polio epidemic, and decades of sandstorm-plagued West Texas springs; she didn’t deserve any more emotional hardship.


However, it wasn’t long after the attack on our country when I joked with my family that had Vivian Williams been around at the time, it would have been a great idea for the U.S. government to send her to Kabul as Negotiator in Chief.


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I predicted that had that come to pass, in 10 days or less, the State Department would have received a cable from the Taliban that read, "You can have bin Laden by the weekend; we will cut a deal with the Israelis; women can wear miniskirts; and the garbage will be out first thing Thursday mornings. All you have to do is get this old lady out of here."


I do not, in any sense, want to denigrate the seriousness of the situation we are living in at this place and time. The most tragic imagery of the HIV crises in the 1980s and ’90s and beyond was the sight of parents standing at their children’s graves. Nothing is more unnatural, but there has to be that moment when one can smile or laugh again and if that is a gift I possess, then my life will not have been lived for nothing.


I am now on the brim of being elderly, and one odd side effect of this plague we are enduring is that with people of all ages being quarantined, all of us, whatever our years, are getting a sample of the daily lives of old people. The inability to go anywhere at any time is suddenly everyone’s story.


The manner in which elderly folks preplan their days, breakfast, reading the news, walks, lunch, naps, NPR (hopefully) at 3 p.m., cocktails or wine at 5:30 p.m., dinner — tonight is burger night — and on and on, is a version of the routine that all who are wise enough or lucky enough to stay secluded and safe, share.


I will always remember that only one day after the fascist military coup in Chile, in 1973, that country’s great poet, Pablo Neruda died — some would say just when Chileans needed him the most. In that same sad vein, what I will always remember about the COVID plague in our country is the loss of the genius poet and songwriter John Prine, gone when America needed him the most.


I have thought a lot lately about my favorite Prine song, "Hello In There," and Bette Midler’s brilliant recording of it. In this sparse marriage of words and music I reacquaint with the same satisfaction I knew after watching Arthur Miller’s "Death of a Salesman" or rereading Willa Cather’s "My Antonia."


Since so many of us are now rehearsing the rituals of aging, we can benefit from Prine’s work of art. At this odd and unpracticed moment in time, let us permit his song to comfort us, to coach us in its wisdom.


"Hello in There" has acquired a fresh and universal context that the poet himself likely never anticipated. We are all older at this moment. We all need to speak and to hear the words, "Hello in there," whether on the phone, or in a text, or through an old-fashioned letter penned in graceful cursive writing.


So if you’re walking down the street sometime


And spot some hollow ancient eyes


Please don’t just pass em by and stare


As if you didn’t care, say "Hello in there. Hello"


— John Prine (1946-2020)