Deep in the Heart of Texas
Local Bigots Shut Down Texas Shakespeare Festival
by Steven Robert Allen

November 18 - November 24, 1999

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Arts and Literature Calendar
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Detail from the book cover for Angels in America

When Raymond Caldwell, artistic director of the Texas Shakespeare Festival in Kilgore, Texas, decided to have his theater students at the local community college put on a production of Angels in America, he had no idea what he was in for. This complex Pulitzer Prize-winning epic play by Tony Kushner is about a lot of things -- politics, sexuality, love, etc. -- but what got Caldwell in such hot water is the fact that Angels in America is also about homosexuals.

Soon after Caldwell announced that he would put on the play, letters to the editor started pouring in to local papers denouncing Caldwell and his production. He also started receiving personal mail and calls with charming threats like, "We're going to get you," and "We won't forget this."

According to William Holda, the president of the college, a couple of Baptist churches -- Heritage Baptist Church and God Said Ministries -- organized the uproar. They lugged signs around saying things like, "Maggots Are Better Than Faggots, Because At Least They Have A Purpose." Classy group, huh? One sign even depicted stick figures engaged in anal sex, accompanied by the words "God Hates Fags."

The situation eventually degenerated into pure lunacy. The protesters began claiming that the college was trying to recruit college kids to the gay lifestyle. Caldwell says that a man in a black bus drove around campus for days with a sign posted on the side saying, "Hello, Governor Bush. Dr. Molda [sic] and the sewer sucking sodomites are raping the virgin village of Kilgore." Bible quotes were also posted all over the bus. Because of the threats and protests, the college had to implement special security measures. Police were present at the performance and attendees were forced to enter the theater through metal detectors. The audience was videotaped throughout the entire show.

In retrospect, none of this seems too surprising to Caldwell. "This section of east Texas is part of the old Deep South," he says. "It resembles Arkansas and Northern Louisiana more than it resembles Houston or Dallas. This is an extremely conservative part of the Bible Belt."

The four-day production run ended, and eventually the chaos died down a bit -- but not before the county caved in to the Bible-beating bigots and withdrew funding for Caldwell's Texas Shakespeare Festival. It's bad enough when local citizens express such overwhelming intolerance for a work of art that most of them probably haven't even experienced -- but these are obviously not bright people. When local government steps in to sanction their ignorance, prejudice, intimidation and blackmail, everyone suffers.

Who would have thought that a few psychotic homophobes could kill off a Shakespeare festival? Then again, maybe it's Shakespeare himself they were after -- some of those love sonnets read pretty darn queer.

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