Where Angels Fear to Tread

When Kilgore College staged a gay play, administrators learned there were limits to a liberal education in East Texas

At Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, located in southwestern Arkansas, Caldwell majored in theater and French. After graduation, he took a job teaching drama at Kilgore High School and later moved to Kilgore College, but he returned to his alma mater to teach theater for six years. In the mid '70s Kilgore College enticed him back to East Texas, where he and his wife, Anna, settled in nearby Longview.

Caldwell knew from teaching at Ouachita that Kilgore audiences wouldn't be comfortable with a story about the struggles of homosexuals. Getting them to look past Kushner's raw language and gay sex scenes wouldn't be easy. So he decided to forewarn everybody -- students, parents and administrators -- that he intended to stage the first half of Kushner's play, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.

He would cut one explicit sex scene between two men, take out a nude scene and delete a few instances of the word fuck. He changed his usual policy requiring all theater majors to audition for school productions, giving them the option to bow out. He printed disclaimers on all audition posters. He even told students to share the script with their parents, encouraging them to back out if tryouts would cause problems at home. Only two out of 20 opted out.

Kilgore College president William Holda knew he had to defend Caldwell's First Amendment rights and the school's academic freedoms.
Matt Johnson
Kilgore College president William Holda knew he had to defend Caldwell's First Amendment rights and the school's academic freedoms.
Faith Baptist Church pastor David Bishop: "Parents of kids that go to Kilgore don't pay money to have their young people educated in that lifestyle."
Matt Johnson
Faith Baptist Church pastor David Bishop: "Parents of kids that go to Kilgore don't pay money to have their young people educated in that lifestyle."

Two weeks before Angels opened, Caldwell sent a letter to college president William Holda, liberal and fine arts dean Steve Reif and vice president of instruction Gerald Stanglin, asking them to support him in case anyone complained about the play. Caldwell outlined his concerns, but none of the three paid much attention. They recalled that Caldwell had managed to stage Equus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest without much flak, so they said okay.

But on September 30, when Holda actually read the play, the college president knew there'd be repercussions.

Word of the production spread slowly through the Kilgore community. The first reference appeared in the student newspaper's September 10 issue. The Flare reporter Jamie Maldonado announced that the theater department would stage Angels as the fall student play and then reported some of Caldwell's concerns over a potential public outcry. The routine announcement ran on the lower half of page one -- and got no reaction.

On September 24 The Flare published a longer feature written by Maldonado after he had obtained a copy of the script. His article surveyed its gay themes, the cast's reaction to it and more statements from Caldwell on why he had chosen it. This time, editors gave the story a splashy, front-page treatment, packaging it with an attention-grabbing black box and a large photo of the cast. Atop the box, in reverse bold letters, the paper ran a feature headline that echoed the play's subtitle, A Gay Fantasia.

When Caldwell saw the headline, he knew there would be trouble. Six days after the article appeared, Donald Bebee, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, rang up Caldwell in his office and demanded to see a copy of the script. After reading it, Bebee wrote a letter to the Kilgore News Herald, which was published on October 3. In it, he wondered about Caldwell's motives in staging "vulgar and explicit scenes including two men embracing and kissing." He chastised Caldwell for subjecting 18-, 19- and 20-year-old students to four-letter words and gay sex scenes. And he insinuated that Caldwell's real reason for choosing Angels stemmed from a personal identification with a character in the play, Roy M. Cohn, a New York attorney and closet homosexual who is based on the man who helped Joseph McCarthy hunt for Communists in the '50s.

In the letter, Bebee also took issue with some students' favorable attitude toward the drama's themes and values, accusing them of blatantly disregarding community sensibilities. He encouraged anyone who agreed with him to consider punishing the college. He wrote, "If our tax dollars are so carelessly being used without consideration to the affect [sic] and offense toward the people in the community, perhaps it is time to consider withdrawing support for additional activities such as the Shakespeare Festival in which the drama department at Kilgore College engages." Bebee urged readers to oppose the play by signing petitions or contacting city, county or college officials.

Other prominent Kilgore residents, including the publisher and editor of the Kilgore News Herald, followed Bebee's lead and took a public position against the play. On October 3 Dave Kucifer, publisher of the News Herald, wrote an editorial that was printed directly above Bebee's letter. In it, Kucifer noted that Angels in America "deals with an alternate lifestyle foreign to Kilgore and the East Texas area." Kucifer made his pronouncement based on Bebee's interpretation of the script and didn't bother to read it himself. On October 5 Marie Eschenfelder, a reporter at The Flare, participated in a news conference at Faith Baptist Church with three fellow staff members and four ministers. Only she and a minister had read the play, she said.

Word of the controversy quickly hit the Kilgore and Longview papers. Ministers seized on it as a topic for Sunday sermons. Not long afterward, the phones in Caldwell's and Holda's offices started ringing. On October 4, 5 and 6, the college received approximately 100 calls per day, forcing Holda to install separate phone and e-mail lines. Callers accused Caldwell of identifying with the characters and promoting an unhealthy agenda among his students. Another 1,000 residents from Kilgore, Longview and Tyler signed petitions opposing the play.

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