IF YOU WERE ASKED TO NAME the most famous fictional town in American theater, you’d probably say Grover’s Corners from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Well, don’t count out Tuna, Texas. In a world where sequels are rarely a success, the third of the Tuna plays, Red, White and Tuna, premieres this month in Galveston, tours all over the state this summer, and then heads to big cities around the country. The new play features the same cartoonish cast of big-haired bigots, hormonally charged Tastee Kreme waitresses, philandering husbands, and drawling radio announcers from Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas, and all the parts will be played by the same Austin actors who created Tuna: portly Joe Sears and Barney Fife—ish Jaston Williams.
If the past is any barometer, Red, White and Tuna will become a national sensation and will probably end up Off-Broadway—if not on Broadway. Last year alone, the Tuna plays (along with Tuna merchandise) brought in $5 million in gross sales, a staggering amount when you consider that Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas have been staged regularly since 1981 and 1989, respectively. The 48-year-old Sears and the 46-year-old Williams are no longer sure how many times they have performed Greater Tuna; they stopped counting in 1994 after their 2,500th performance (this past fall, they gave their 1,000th performance of A Tuna Christmas). Meanwhile, hundreds of theaters around the country stage the plays themselves. “It’s still amazing to me that two men dressed mostly in drag could have such an effect on audiences,” says Sears, who was nominated for a Tony award in 1995 for his work in A Tuna Christmas.
Originally conceived by Sears and Williams during an ad-lib skit at an Austin party in 1980—the two pretended to be hick deejays—the Tuna plays are basically a series of interconnected sketches about the comedic foibles of small-town life. Red, White and Tuna continues the tradition, portraying the residents of Tuna as they gather for a high school reunion. There will be a homecoming reunion queen contest, a marriage proposal for the long-suffering Bertha Bumiller, and an attempt by Klansman Elmer Watkins to take Tuna mayor Leonard Childers hostage (he accidentally ends up with Leonard’s irritating wife, Reba, instead). Also, the town’s theater director, Joe Bob Lipsey, tries to produce a new musical featuring the town’s residents (Red, White and Fabulous), and a new batch of characters will be introduced: former Tuna residents who until now have been living the “hippie life” in Lubbock.
Okay, so maybe none of these characters, old or new, will make the kind of speeches that compare with Emily’s poignant soliloquy at the end of Our Town. On the other hand, none of them are even close to dying off. Sears and Williams do not deny that a fourth Tuna may be in the works. “As a joke, people are asking us, ‘What’s next? A Tuna Halloween?’” says Sears. “And we’re thinking, ‘Hey, that’s not such a bad idea.’”