This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of playwright William Inge, whose classic plays like Bus Stop and Picnic drew on his formative years in Independence, Kansas. Though never openly gay, he did write a series of short plays featuring gay characters and stories that have seldom been seen.
Opening this month is a collage of four of those plays, being staged in a site-specific theater piece inside what used to be the region's premiere venue for female impersonators.
From the late 1950's to 1972, the Jewel Box in the 3200 block of Troost Avenue was one of known places in the Midwest to take in a show by performers called 'femme mimics' - later known as female impersonators and, as of late, drag queens. In February, the Jewel Box will reopen as the site of a world premiere of four little known pieces by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and native Kansan William Inge.
Artist Joseph Keehn is one of the producers of what's called An Otherwise Hopeless Evening of Very Gay and Extremely Grim Short Plays. He says he was able to connect Inge and the Jewel Box thanks to the Kansas City-housed Gay & Lesbian Archive of Mid-America.
"The collection manager over there, Stuart Hinds, provided us with a plethora of information about the history of the gay bar scene in Kansas City," Keehn says, "And (he) really narrowed down what bars possibly William Inge could have visited while he was coming to the city.
"It was often cited that he was leaving to go to the city, so Kansas City would definitely be one of those places. And there’s mention of female impersonation at one point, that he had a curiosity on it. The Jewel Box Lounge was the female impersonation bar in the region. So Stuart Hinds ended up getting us in contact with the owner, which is where we’re sitting right now."
Directing the show is New York-based theater artist Travis Chamberlain, whose resume includes a site-specific production of a rarely seen Tennessee Williams play staged in a Midtown Manhattan hotel room in 2009. Through collaboration with Keehn, two short plays Inge would only allow to be published after his mother's death were found. He and Keehn then discovered two unpublished pieces in a biography of the writer. He says it was hard to resist creating a show that references both Inge's veiled sexuality and mid-20th century homosexuality in the Midwest.
"Looking at this issue of struggle was fascinating, honestly," Chamberlain says. "That was embedded in the material. And thinking about the way in which that struggle has changed over time. And trying to create some sort of connection with Kansas City’s contemporary LGBTQ community, to a struggle that predates Stonewall in New York. And thinking about what is that experience in the heartland. The work I do is about investigating queer histories, so this is very much an extension of what I’ve been doing already."
One of the vignettes is called 'The Love Death,' a series of monologues featuring a flamboyant artist who is setting up a drastic event with a series of phone calls. Chamberlain decided to interweave the character throughout the piece, and have every actor in the show play him at one point in the show.
At a recent rehearsal, Late Night Theatre veteran and well-known drag performer De De Deville is embodying the character and on the phone with one of his nemeses.
"God knows I would not destroy myself for anything you might happen to write about me, Mr. Parker," the character says with some level of spite. "Because even though you write for a so-called intellectual magazine, I see through your prose. I consider it a compliment you did not like my book Mr. Parker, so do not for a moment feel guilty. I’m proud you hated my book Mr. Parker. I’m proud."
Queen of Parts
Though Deville's drag queen credentials post-date the Jewel Box, he says performing there now has a sweet resonance.
"It’s very exciting having performed here in town for well over 19 years," he says at a rehearsal dinner break. "I was always interested in our history as a queen. So I’d heard of the Jewel Box. There’s something sort of surreal and special about being able to do something in a place that has such great history about those that came before and that made what I do possible."
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, William Inge never publicly acknowledged that he was gay. But the fact that the William Inge Estate gave this production permission to stage these plays lend that idea some tacit acceptance.
“An Otherwise Hopeless Evening of Very Gay and Extremely Grim Short Plays By William Inge,” plus an art installation by Joseph Keehn, February 1- 24, 2013, Jewel Box Lounge, 3227 Troost Avenue, Kansas City, MO. For tickets, visit www.brownpapertickets.com