A Town Split By a Play About the 1980s AIDS Epidemic

Chelsea Purgahn/The Press via AP

In 1999, theater director Raymond Caldwell staged Angels in America at Kilgore College. Kilgore is small town in east Texas’ piney woods, and this play about the 1980s AIDS epidemic created a huge schism in this conservative, religious community. Writer Wes Ferguson grew up in Kilgore. Twenty years after the performance, Ferguson’s Texas Monthly article examines the effects this Pulitzer Prize-winning play had on the Kilgore residents through its brief performance. Angels in America has enormous artistic merit, but “artistic merit carried only so much weight in Kilgore,” writes Fergesun.

Ferguson edited Kilgore College’s student paper, and he published a story about the play and its potential controversy. Unfortunately, some people blamed Ferguson’s catchy headline for igniting the trouble that followed, but Kilgore was already a town divided. It was a town where two of Ferguson’s high school classmates murdered an innocent man because of his sexual orientation, a town where one of the parents of the play’s lead actor insisited he not perform the role because they feared for his life and for their reputation, and a town where many Kilgore College professors supported their students who acted on their values, no matter how much they differed from their parents’ or their peers’ values.

While chatting with old friends recently, I have discovered that my world-view wasn’t the only one transformed by the arrival of Angels in America in the Piney Woods twenty years ago. Danea Males, then a photojournalist for the Flare, whose father had not allowed her to see the play, says that photographing the protests was the first time she stepped away from the fundamentalist church she’d grown up in. “It was a defining moment,” she says. “I wasn’t supposed to question things. I was supposed to have faith that guided my path. But the petitions and the protests—they were so ugly and mean-spirited.” Today, Males is an art professor at a university in South Carolina.

Last spring, I was visiting family in Kilgore when Adams, through sheer coincidence, also happened to arrive in town. A longtime New York resident, he’d just completed the twelve-week run of a play in Florida called Straight White Men, and he’d come to East Texas to see family too and to talk with a local film producer who was interested in a movie script he’d written about Kilgore’s brush with Angels. We met at a pool hall in Longview. Through the haze of cigarette smoke and the crack of billiard balls, he could still recite his favorite line from the play: “From such a strong desire to be good, they feel very far from goodness when they fail.” It was a sentiment that strongly resonated with Adams, who, long before he took on the role of the spiritually tormented Joe Pitt, had twice asked God to save him. “My grandfather baptized me, and I didn’t think it was good enough, so I got baptized again,” he said. “I didn’t resonate with being gay, necessarily, but I resonated with trying to fit into something you don’t fit into”—namely, for him, fundamentalist theology and stifling small-town culture.

Four months after Adams appeared in Angels, his uncle Jason killed himself. Adams had no idea his uncle was gay, nor that he had AIDS. “When that happened,” he said, “I was galvanized.” Upon leaving Kilgore, he was accepted into London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, from which he graduated in 2003. “Angels in America defined who I am,” Adams said. “All my career, I’ve tried to be a torch for marginalized people.” In 2012, Adams wrote and directed an off-Broadway play titled The Man-Made Rock, about repressed East Texans. Joseph Magee, who over the years had made his peace with Caldwell and everyone involved with Angels, was the major backer of Adams’s production.

Adams’s mother was changed by the experience too. “It opened my eyes up,” she said recently. “Justin’s an actor, he’s around all sorts of people, and I have really become fond of them—it’s not my business if they’re gay. I like them as a person, and I’m not gonna judge them. There was a time I did. I was worried what other people would think.”

Adams’s activism has long outlasted that of the protesters, who abandoned their cause before the end of the four-night, sold-out run. The Gregg County Commissioners Court did make good on its threat to yank financial support from the Shakespeare Festival, though. “What comes to my mind when I think of Shakespeare are folks with some spears,” Commissioner Danny Craig told the Houston Press, admitting that he’d never seen a Shakespeare play. Donations from theater supporters around the country more than made up the difference, as did a check presented to Holda when he received a PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award for his refusal to cancel the play.

“I would not want to go through it again, but I don’t regret having taken a stand,” Holda says now. “Without the confrontation that occurred, Kilgore might not have awakened as quickly to the realities of its own community. The world was changing.”

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