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.

Caldwell's family moved back and forth between Arkansas and East Texas during his school years. At Marshall Junior High School, northeast of Kilgore, teachers encouraged him to explore theater. He starred in several one-act plays and won a best actor award in the ninth grade. Back at Benton High School, Caldwell sensed he had a knack for drama after starring in the senior play, so he hunted for a college with a theater program.

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.

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.

"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.

"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.

Although he plays organ at Christ the King Catholic Church, he also leads the choir at First Presbyterian Church and has busily volunteered to help a number of local Protestant churches over the years. He admits his core religious principles fly in the face of the area's bumper sticker theology and politics.

Pummeled daily with complaints and threats to cut Kilgore College's funding before Angels opened, Holda saw no choice but to defend Caldwell's First Amendment rights and the academic freedoms set forth in the college's accreditation criteria and Policy and Personnel Manual. If he stopped the play, he would go against higher education's bedrock principle and jeopardize the college's future accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Holda told the Tyler Morning Telegraph a week before the play opened, "I don't want to sacrifice our principle of academic freedom for money."

Holda's attitude toward the controversy was important. He was one of only two people who could call a special board of trustees meeting to reconsider Angels. The other was board president Fred Parsons. Neither man decided to make that call, even though Parsons, after attending a rehearsal, couldn't condone the play's sex and profanity. "The right of one of our professionals to do it had to be defended," he said. Holda and Parsons made their decision in the face of some board pressure. On October 8 The Flare reported that three trustees, Gary Burton, Jean McLaurin and Marion Turner, stated they favored a special meeting to discuss a vote to suspend the play.

Randall Brint told the Press he felt that if the board had called a meeting, the trustees would have voted unanimously to halt the production. But in the final days before the board issued its public support for Holda's decision, the trustees learned that Caldwell had enlisted the help of a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union who was prepared to seek an injunction should the board ask him to stop the play. Fearing the college would be damaged by legal controversy, the board backed down. In the end, as Holda and the faculty senate voiced wholehearted support for Caldwell, the trustees grudgingly got behind him.

wDifferent factions opposed Angels for different reasons. Kilgore trustees feared the college pledge campaign would suffer, and the commissioners had their constituents to please. But members of the religious community opposed it on moral grounds and felt they answered to a higher authority. A few days after Bebee's first rumblings, David Bishop, pastor of Faith Baptist Church, posed next to his church marquee. It said, "Say no way to the Gay Play at KC!" On October 8 The Flare ran the photo and a story that quoted Bishop: "According to the word of God, homosexuality is wrong. Parents of kids that go to Kilgore don't pay money to have their young people educated in that lifestyle." Mark McClelland, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kilgore, taped a sermon denouncing the play and placed copies for sale.

Bishop refused to talk to the Press. Secretaries screening for Bebee and McClelland would not take calls either.

Yet attacks by Bebee, Bishop and McClelland reflected only one voice in the religious community. Ministers who didn't condone the play eventually questioned the trio's tactics. On October 10 Riley Pippen, pastor of Highland Baptist Church, spoke out on KLTV against the hatred he felt the ministers expressed. Pippen took the high ground, asking viewers to promote a ministry of love. His plea was a verbal slap at the venom and character assassination of the vocal Kilgore clergy, said Bill Ingersoll, pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

"At first [Bebee and his followers] were reveling in [their cause], but when they were sliced and diced in the media, it created a backlash among the Christian community," Holda said. As the college got besieged, Ingersoll visited Caldwell and Holda to apologize for the trouble other ministers had caused. He regretted that the region's extensive media coverage might damage Kilgore College's reputation. "Those who chose to make the play a public issue didn't think through the consequences," Ingersoll told the Press. He said play opponents should have realized their Bible-waving would jeopardize the college's fund-raising efforts and subject the campus to the wrath of the fringe.

And the extremists did come. Several days before the play opened, groups from nearby Lindale and Mount Enterprise headed to Kilgore, determined not to let First Amendment champions make a mockery of the Bible. Lindale residents from the Church of God - Headquarters in Heaven drove a black bus through campus and displayed signs of protest, The Flare reported. One read, "Dr. Holda -- How evil to blaspheme the savior's name, calling it art!"

On the Sunday before and the Sunday after the play opened, the group also parked in front of First Presbyterian Church, where Holda directs the choir. Members had to walk by a slogan painted on the bus before entering through the church door. It read, "HELLP [sic], GOV. BUSH, CALL THE POLICE!! DR. HOLDA & HIS SEWER-SUCKING SODOMITES AT K.C. HAVE RAPED AND SODOMIZED THE VIRGIN VILLAGE OF KILGORE, TX." (Put off by the Lindale protest, lay officials in the Presbyterian congregation made a formal statement personally supporting Holda and affirming his contributions to the community, the church and the college.)

When Heritage Baptist Church members picketed the play on opening night, one carried a sign painted with two stick figures having anal sex. Caldwell and others thought this message, and other signs expressing a loathing for homosexuals, were more repulsive than any scene in Angels. W.N. Otwell, pastor of the church in Mount Enterprise that sponsored a protest, disagreed. "I guess it's because their minds are perverted. The stick figure signs had no sexual organs exposed." Otwell also disagreed with a counterprotester who carried a sign claiming, "God Doesn't Hate." Said the pastor: "God does hate. God wouldn't create hell if he didn't hate."

Publicity about the Kilgore College controversy made headlines in metropolitan newspapers across the country as a result of wire coverage in the Associated Press and Reuters. The Australian Broadcast Company contacted Caldwell for an interview. Kushner himself phoned Caldwell on three occasions and sent a letter of support to the students.

But neither the publicity nor the celebrity support could stop the fallout, which continued well after Angels took its final bow on the Kilgore College stage. The Overton-based McMillan Foundation, despite its 40-year relationship with the college, threatened to withhold the remaining $500,000 it had pledged to the school for the year. The gift, already earmarked for completing the Devall Student Center and renovating the Ivan Liberal Arts Building, was saved only after Holda met individually with each foundation trustee.

The college's board of trustees also urged Holda to put a new forum in place, a "notification policy," so college administrators could receive fair warning before controversial student programs reached the public. Though Holda has no intention of using the policy to dismantle the college's principles of academic freedom, Caldwell believes it's a thinly disguised mechanism for censorship.

The big wallop, however, came on October 28, when county commissioners, with one member absent, voted 4-0 to rescind the $50,000 gift to the Texas Shakespeare Festival's 2000 season. "I was disappointed. Therefore, I did what I had said I would do," said commissioner McBride in a faxed statement.

wThe Texas Shakespeare Festival began as Kilgore's contribution to Texas's sesquicentennial celebration in 1986 but has since grown to stand on its own. Now attracting patrons throughout north Texas, the summer festival features two works by Shakespeare, as well as a classical drama, and occasionally a musical. It has become an annual institution in the theater-starved area. "The festival has been compared to professional theaters in New York or California," Holda said.

Last summer, before the opening curtain, Caldwell told audiences about the festival's financial problems. He made a plea for support, explaining that his budget continues to shrink along with Kilgore College's oil-dependent tax base. Gregg County appraisal statistics show that while taxes on personal property have increased since 1996, revenues from the East Texas oil fields have consistently shrunk. In 1999 the festival's $332,359 budget was $52,000 less than the previous year. Caldwell learned the 2000 season would have to cut an additional $32,000 from the already lean 1999 budget.

During a matinee performance, Norman Shtofman, a clothier and former Tyler mayor, asked Caldwell if the college could continue to afford to sponsor the festival. Caldwell told him, "It's getting harder." Shtofman said he knew businessmen in Tyler who would jump at the chance to take it over. The next morning Shtofman phoned Caldwell to chat about visiting with his friend Bill Crowe, president of Tyler Junior College. Although Crowe was interested in saving the festival, he refused to make an offer, out of respect for Kilgore College. He didn't want people to think Tyler, a longtime civic rival, would steal the festival away from Kilgore.

That didn't stop the rumors. The public perception was that Tyler wanted to gobble up the festival. As a result of the potential takeover, Gregg County commissioners in September voted 3-2 to offer the college a $50,000 matching grant that required the school to raise an additional $50,000 from other sources. The city of Longview followed suit, directing $30,000 of its hotel/motel tax revenue to the festival. The city of Kilgore threw in another $15,000, or one-seventh if its anticipated hotel/motel income. All told, the $95,000 in gifts would make up the budget shortfall the festival had experienced since 1998.

"It wasn't out of a noble love of the arts that prompted these entities to come forward," Holda said. The college soon learned how fickle the commissioners were in their professed love for Shakespeare when, a mere four weeks later, they unanimously rescinded their gift. Although he was in Austin when the grant was voted down, Judge Smith explained that the September vote, a tight 3-2 majority, indicated that the commissioners were divided over the issue in the first place. The Angels scandal clinched the decision of the five-man committee to take back the money, Smith said. "It was the icing on the cake."

Two commissioners didn't like using county money to fund the arts, Smith said. Danny Craig, Kilgore's representative on the commission, felt it wasn't fair to give money to the Shakespeare Festival without also giving it to other cultural activities such as the city's annual Juneteenth celebration. Craig admitted he'd never seen a Shakespeare production in his life. "What comes to my mind when I think of Shakespeare are folks with some spears."

Although the cities of Kilgore and Longview expressed reservations after county commissioners took back their pledge, neither has plans to withdraw its grants. Kilgore's money will be parceled out in quarterly installments throughout 2000 if the festival remains in the city, said mayor Joe Parker. Holda is finishing up a proposal to the Longview city commission that will determine how the city dispenses funds to the festival in February.

After losing the county money, Caldwell sent a chain letter to every friend and colleague he had in the arts, a missive that soon found its way to the media. Reporters from all over the country called. The commissioners' decision was publicized and criticized in The Nation, Backstage and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among many others. Individuals sent checks to help make up the $50,000 loss. One check from a New York City woman was for $1,000. The Dramatists Guild of America, the nation's largest organization for playwrights, told Caldwell last week it plans to send the festival a check for $10,000.

Caldwell said he has received scads of letters from such major institutions as Yale, Harvard, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. He has also heard from prominent university drama heads and Shakespeare festival directors in Oregon, Dallas, Alabama, Utah and Canada. Texas Christian University sent Caldwell proceeds from its December student play. Alley Theatre artistic director Gregory Boyd sent a letter of protest to Gregg County commissioners, saying, "The [Texas Shakespeare Festival] represents the very best of what the arts seek to achieve." And Texas Monthly awarded the commissioners a Bum Steer Award in January.

This spring David Wiley, Kilgore College development director, will supervise a fund-raising effort to begin a permanent endowment for the festival. Holda hopes to raise $5 million so that the festival can be self-sufficient. The plan sounds unrealistic to Caldwell. Raising that much money will be difficult, he believes, particularly given the recent controversy.

But Holda remains optimistic -- maybe a little foolishly, he says -- and believes the festival will remain in Kilgore. Caldwell isn't so sure Kilgore is the best place for it. "I think central Texas, with its larger population and less conservative attitudes, may be a more nourishing environment," he says.

If Caldwell could leave Kilgore College and start fresh, he would. "Under these current circumstances, I would definitely go. The guaranteed future of the festival is elsewhere," he said.

For the first time in Caldwell's career, the 57-year-old theater veteran feels hemmed in. It's not just about politicians and preachers indirectly influencing artistic decisions. It's also about Kilgore College's new notification policy, which has the potential to screen student productions. This kind of narrow, bureaucratic thinking runs counter to his personal philosophies on art and teaching at a college level. "You can't expose students to worlds they're not familiar with and restrict yourself to reflect the community you're in," he says.

The dustup in Kilgore has steeled Caldwell's resolve, though. "This controversy, more than anything in my life, has proven the power of theater and reminded me of its real purpose, the reason it exists. It's all so clear to me at this time in my life. I have to [leave if necessary] and go do what my calling is."

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Cynthia Greenwood