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The screaming part of China: A noisy path to parenthood brings about new show

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Originally published on January 26, 2008

He's gained legendary status as the Texas theater talent who is co-creator and co-star of the ever-popular hit 'Tuna' comedies, the latest of which, 'Tuna Does Vegas,' premiered in October. And, yet, Jaston Williams also has found the energy to embark on solo projects. Opening Friday at the Paramount Theatre, 'Cowboy Noises' is Williams' autobiographical one-man play about his desire to parent, the loss of his adult son in a tragic car accident, his journey a few years after that to China to adopt a 7-year-old boy and a kind of reconciliation through memory of Williams' relationship with his own father. At times endearing, at times outrageously funny, 'Cowboy Noises' is ultimately about the sound of families in the 21st century. Here, Williams gives us a preview of 'Cowboy Noises.'

- Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, AMERICAN-STATESMAN ARTS WRITER

The process of adoption allowed me to excise the word "difficult" from my lexicon. Instead, things became "challenging" and after two monumentally challenging years, one Sunday I found myself ensconced inside a hotel room in Jinan, China, a huge industrial city in that country's northeast. Having just been told by the guide that it would be a four-hour wait for my son's arrival, I had arranged some toys on his bed and stretched out for a nap when the phone rang: "They're here. We're coming to your room right now."

I've never really gotten that nap.

Now, he was happy to see me but that thrill came in a distant second to the gifts that awaited him. Within minutes he was preening for the camera, modeling sun visor and cool shades while clutching a stuffed toy kangaroo with sweets secreted in its pouch. That first meeting became an emotional gale made more surreal by his choppy vocal bursts and ra-ta-tats. The Chinese I had studied proved virtually useless as it was revealed to me that he spoke an obscure dialect. The situation we found ourselves in resurrected unpleasant memories of one of those insufferably miserable theater acting exercises where all you were allowed to work with was sound and gesture.

Our well-meaning guide suggested it would be a good idea to have dinner together in the hotel restaurant, and what ensued was the evening that I shall always refer to as Stir-Fried Hell. My son screamed, barked, bellowed, snapped, beckoned and pointed, parsing out demands as imperiously as a Mandarin warlord, all in a language that not one single person present could understand a word of. I consumed not one bite of food, filled to burp level by the energy he was serving up dim sum style. We retired early to the visible relief of the shell-shocked waiters and staff.

Later that night as I called my partner, Kevin, back in the States, Song was in bed, all his toys, books, candy, etc. safe and secure under the covers, as he offered soft chirping comforts to his kangaroo,

"He chirps, Kevin."

"What do you mean, he chirps?"

"He's chirping now. Listen."

I held the receiver to his mouth and he obliged us with tiny cat meows and tender birdlike twitters and cheeps.

All we had those first few days was instinct, sound and tonality, and I began to worry. No doubt my mother was subconsciously needling me from beyond the grave with her mantra that if there seemed to be a problem, the reason must have something to do with me. So I asked the guide if my son's wailing and barking, and what came across as near-rabid animal snarls, were indications of personal hostility toward me, because I want you to know this kid was LOUD. Italian-wedding loud.

"Oh no," she replied. "Song is not angry. He's from the screaming part of China."

Now in my two years of what I considered to be meticulous research, I had never stumbled across any information indicating that one part of China bore inhabitants that screamed any louder than another, but the guide assured me that in small villages in the north and northeast, screaming is quite the thing, and sure enough I began to notice the rural folk on city streets grinning and screaming like Texas Tech fans with a 40-point lead on the Aggies. I imagine my brow developed a bit of a before unseen furrow as I pondered the possibility that I might have just adopted Li'l Abner with chopsticks.

It was necessary for us to travel by bus to my son's orphanage in Qingdao, a coastal city some four hours to the east. Our guide, thinking it would be comforting for me, had scheduled us to have lunch at a McDonald's attached to the bus station, and before leaving to place our order, she seated Song and me at a large table, the other half being occupied by four teenage local boys, who like 99.9 percent of this city had never laid eyes on a flesh-and-blood Caucasian. The poor kids went archaeological: eyes fixed, no apparent breath, each stony catatonic stare attempting to convey something to the effect of "Holy Mao, there's a chimpanzee at the table, and it's captured one of our young."

The meal was cut short when my son indicated the need for a restroom break, a request he invariably holds off on until just the moment his bladder is about to rupture, so we bustled across the Grand Central Station-esque bus terminal, queuing up in a line of sullen suspicious businessmen, who warily eyed the chimpanzee and the vociferous 7-year-old farm boy in tow as we all slowly snaked our way into that dimly lighted rancid little corner of hell known as a public restroom in China.

Now, try as I might, there is simply no way in a family newspaper to jerry-rig my abilities as a writer in order to accurately describe what happened inside that restroom. I mean, there are such things as standards in journalism, and thank God for them. Let's just leave it at this: Having been in show business for more than 35 years, I've covered the waterfront when it comes to the grotesque. " I've seen things I dare not share with total strangers, but that Chinese bus station restroom takes the blue ding-dong ribbon.

Now, casting humor aside, ironically this day was to be one of transformation in my relationship with my new son, for there was a fear-fueled tension welling inside me, swelling and tightening, like an overfilled balloon, made more thin-skinned by the sounds my boy was hurling in my direction. Granted between McDonald's, the bus ride, the culture clashes and let's not forget the restroom, it had been a day to "annoy the Pontiff" as they sort of say in West Texas, and each abstract bark, punctuated with a 7-year-old finger in my face, jacked up a little more, a little more, a little more stress. This was bound to end up loudly.

After our initial restaurant experience, I had grown ever so close to room service. Just before dinner, as I closed the door behind the exiting waiter, I turned around just in time to see Song pouring a canned Sprite over his noodles, and instantaneously fired out, "STOP!"

He stabbed the air and shot back with a brassy aggressive, "MAAAAAAA!!!"

So doing what always worked for my mama, I simply wailed in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, "YOU'RE DRIVING ME NUTS!" and plugging fingers in his ears, he trumpeted back louder than ever, "AHHHHHHH!!!!!"

I had to laugh, the very sound of which caused the fear inside me to burst. I laughed, and he laughed, and together we had battled our way to the sound we had in common, the sound we could both recognize. Laughter: the sound that engendered our kinship.