Where Angels Fear to Tread

For opening night of Kilgore College's production of Angels in America, police officers and security guards locked every entrance to the Turk Fine Arts Center, except the front door. Cops searched hallways and bathrooms for suspicious packages, and they sent the 12-member student cast to the theater's makeup rooms located in the basement, where the students promptly locked themselves inside until their call to the stage. The actors ignored occasional knocks on the door from well-wishers. Better to be safe, they thought.

Ticket buyers, some who had driven 50 miles to Kilgore, formed a long line outside the arts center to see a play subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. They were required to pass through metal detectors. No one was admitted without a ticket.

Protesters gathered on the fringes of school property since security did not allow them on campus. But not far from the ticket line, a bearded man waved a placard near the curb. It read, "God Hates Fags." His clean-shaven friend from Heritage Baptist Church in nearby Mount Enterprise held up another that warned, "Fags Want Your Child." Others from their group passed around flyers disguised as press releases, littered with the epithets "Better to Honor Maggots than Faggots!" and "God Hates the Workers of Iniquity."

As curtain time neared, nearly 150 hopeful theatergoers still waited to claim unused seats that had been bought up in large blocks by an area businessman and two other Kilgore residents, who hoped to shield locals from the play. Inside the theater, video cameras were trained on the audience, set to monitor its moves during the show. Raymond Caldwell, Kilgore College drama department director, stationed himself at the back door. He wore a headset wired to the lighting booth and was poised to yell "hold," a cue for the cast and crew to scatter in case anyone started to get rowdy during the performance.

The video surveillance proved unnecessary. Before the curtain rose, the members of the audience -- a heady mix of townsfolk, civil libertarians, gays, lesbians and curiosity seekers -- rose to their feet and applauded Caldwell's refusal to cave in to protesters who demanded the play be halted. By the third night of the run, the picketers had disappeared and Caldwell appeared to have held his own against his detractors.

Two weeks after the final curtain went down on October 17, however, Caldwell would get a different form of feedback on his Angels in America production, one that would strike a blow to his pet project, the Texas Shakespeare Festival, and would have a lasting effect on his career in Kilgore.

wWhen it came time for Caldwell to choose a student play last September, he mulled over his options. With the exception of Equus, he'd never given his students the chance to perform a play of their own generation. Recent works had nudity, or profanity, or were just too risky to stage in conservative Kilgore, the oil-rich East Texas town that reared pianist Van Cliburn and catapulted the Kilgore Rangerettes into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame. Thinking over his obligation to provide a liberal education, Caldwell realized he couldn't ignore every play written since the '70s and still call himself a college professor. "Theater is a lively, contemporary art, after all. We've been denying that through fear."

When Caldwell read both parts of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America, he knew he had stumbled upon something riveting. The themes are fresh, he thought, and like Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, its pathos has a ring of truth he'd forgotten was possible on the live stage. Angels sifts through the troubled lives of five gay men and one woman, including a trust-fund baby who suffers from AIDS while his lover betrays him, and a federal court clerk who struggles to break out of the closet as his Valium-addicted wife retreats from the world. The play lambastes racist politics and the emptiness of modern life amid fresh diatribes about God and history.

To Caldwell, Angels in America was revolutionary. It was about Americans, not just gays and drag queens. It was the first play in 25 years that had got his adrenalin going; he was determined to produce it at Kilgore College. Whenever he felt tempted to back away, he reminded himself, "Theater is supposed to challenge platitudes. It's supposed to disturb the status quo, pose difficult questions and not give easy answers."

Born a deacon's son in a family of seven, Caldwell was raised a Baptist in Benton, Arkansas, a Little Rock suburb. His mother played the piano at Ridgecrest Baptist Church, where he went to Sunday school. For as long as Caldwell can remember, he and his father were different. Young Raymond liked to read and to play the piano, but when he asked his mother if he could take dance lessons, his father refused to allow it. He wouldn't let Raymond go to the movies until he was nine. He believed there was something morally wrong with entertainment.