Where Angels Fear to Tread

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

"I was accused of perpetrating evil on our innocent youth, of helping to destroy their morals, by people who had never read the play," Caldwell said. He became incensed because he felt Bebee was questioning his sexual preference. But that wasn't the worst of it: One caller wished Caldwell a painful death from AIDS. Another sent him an anonymous letter in large, bold type that said, "Fuck you, you arrogant asshole. I hope you die of AIDS, too." Caldwell repeatedly denied accusations that a personal agenda had driven him to choose Angels. Over and over he told the ones who felt the play glorified homosexuality that it did exactly the opposite. All the gay characters in Angels suffer some kind of misery, he said.

Despite Caldwell's response, many took Bebee's advice and contacted county officials. In routine visits to the post office, coffee shop and barbershop, Gregg County Commissioner Charles Davis spoke to more than 20 residents who protested the play's content. He recalled about 25 more who phoned his precinct office to voice their opposition. Commissioners Danny Craig, David McBride and County Judge Mickey Smith also got complaints. Residents knew these commissioners had some leverage with Kilgore College. The five-member commission had recently awarded a $50,000 cash gift to help the financially strapped Texas Shakespeare Festival.

After Bebee's letter was printed, at least two of the five commissioners expressed misgivings about the play to the local media. On October 5 Smith told Amy Tatum of KLTV-TV in Tyler that he had some concerns about the content of Angels based on excerpts he'd heard about from constituents. He hesitated to say he would rescind the $50,000 gift to the Texas Shakespeare Festival, but when asked how he would vote if he had to that day, he said he would vote to take the money back.

Raymond Caldwell: "I was accused of perpetrating evil on our innocent youth."
Matt Johnson
Raymond Caldwell: "I was accused of perpetrating evil on our innocent youth."

"The message of the play was fine," Smith told the Houston Press. "It was the vulgarity I had a problem with. I don't think you should put 17- or 18-year-old kids on stage using that kind of language." Smith said he didn't see anything wrong with Kushner's bleak view of the plight of AIDS sufferers but felt there was a different way to teach kids about AIDS. "We're a Bible Belt, conservative, religious area, and I'd like to keep it that way."

An October 7 article in the Tyler Morning Telegraph reported that commissioners McBride, Davis and Craig intended to vote on rescinding the festival's grant if the play opened as planned. In the article, McBride denied any attempt to censor the play.

wMembers of the Kilgore College board of trustees soon felt pressure to take sides in the growing controversy. Trustee Gary Burton called for a special meeting to stop the play and voiced his concerns in a long letter to the Longview News Journal. In the letter, he acknowledged that the play presented important issues but in a context too offensive to the public. Holda spent all day, from October 6 through 8, talking to board members individually about their concerns. They feared the scandal would hurt the major gifts campaign and the college's image.

Randall Brint, a trustee who represents the neighboring towns of White Oak and Sabine, both of which are inside the college's taxing district, approached several drama experts to get a more objective viewpoint about the merits of Kushner's play. On October 11 he emailed a letter to Sidney Berger, director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival and the University of Houston drama department, asking about his experience with the play and whether Kilgore was being close-minded about it. Berger recalled telling Brint, "We're not dealing with a piece of pornography. Theater has to provoke. It has to disturbŠ This does not mean it's always safe."

Brint felt torn. He believed Kilgore College should be responsive to its community, but he also believed the school was obliged to give performing arts majors a chance to act in challenging new works. After all, he thought, Kilgore College has an unbeatable reputation as a drama school among north Texas high schools. It houses the professionally run Texas Shakespeare Festival, it allows its freshmen to act in school productions, and it built the fan-shaped Van Cliburn theater, whose architectural plans were later borrowed by designers of the Iden B. Payne theater at the University of Texas at Austin and other community theaters.

Although Caldwell was often forced to defend himself and his departments during Angels rehearsals, no one took as much heat as college president William Holda. An Indiana transplant and an ordained Catholic deacon, Holda is an intellectual and something of an anomaly in a town where religion and politics often lean toward the right. Growing up in Lafayette, Indiana, he turned an early love for music into his life's work, getting a bachelor's degree in voice and music theory from St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer. Graduate studies yielded a master's in music from Indiana University. Soon after starting his doctorate in 1975, he accepted a position teaching music at Kilgore College and permanently moved south.

After Holda had taught one year, most of his music department colleagues quit, and he soon found himself in the job of acting director of the fine arts division. Named director in 1976, Holda over the next five years transformed the college's art, music and theater divisions and founded its program in classical dance. He missed teaching, though, so he went back to the classroom. His work earned him a promotion to dean of admissions in 1990 and then into the president's office in 1996.

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