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Where Angels Fear to Tread

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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."

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Cynthia Greenwood