Get ready for a truly unique theatre event in February called “An Otherwise Hopeless Evening,” which will feature four short plays by William Inge and artworks by Kansas City-based visual artist Joseph Keehn II. The performances and the exhibition will take place in the former location of the historic Jewel Box Lounge, on Troost Avenue.
The producers refer to the show as a “site-specific collaboration between theatre, art and LGBTQ history” in their press release.
Keehn said that working with the New York City-based director, Travis Chamberlain, built on both of their interests in the historical aspect of their productions.
Keehn, a native of Topeka, is intensely devoted to history, so much so that he was determined to hold these plays in the original Jewel Box. This was no easy task – the former lounge had been converted to loft apartments. To accomplish the site-specific location of the show, organizers had to relocate tenants from one unit of the building, store their furniture and put them up in temporary housing for the month of February.
The setting for the plays is the 1940s and 1950s, when the Jewel Box Lounge was the place to go to see female impersonators in Kansas City. It was a place for both heterosexual and homosexual patrons to mingle. Entertainers like Skip Arnold, Rae Bourbon and others did their legendary acts, and performers were expected to sing in their own voices. The Jewel Box Lounge closed March 6, 1982, with a final show by the legendary Sandy Kay, a performer you can still see in shows at Missie B’s.
The visual art component of the production is called “An Otherwise Hopeless Evening of the Most Unusual and So Homophile Works by Joseph Keehn II.” Keehn’s exhibition of original and site-responsive works includes embroidered headlines from LGBTQ history on canvas; portraits of Jewel Box Lounge performers as hair-dye drawings of their wigs embellished on wood panels; monoprints of jockstraps (collected from the Kansas City LGBTQ community) on wallpaper samples; and a series of still-life photographs of objects from the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA).
The theatrical component is called “An Otherwise Hopeless Evening of Very Gay and Extremely Grim Short Plays by William Inge.” It presents a world-premiere anthology: Two of the plays are unpublished works (The Killing and The Love Death) and the other two are rarely produced works that were published toward the end of Inge’s life (The Boy in the Basement and The Tiny Closet).
Each of the plays is hosted by the character of Byron Todd, a flamboyant artist and drama queen who is played intermittently throughout the night by every member of the cast.
The one-act plays move rapidly, Keehn said. The entire evening is less than two hours, and one of the plays is as short as 10 minutes.
This is the 100th anniversary year of Inge’s birth. The celebrated playwright and native of Independence, Kan., died in 1973.
Inge is known for writing about the Midwest experience, Keehn said, and he “is not known to always put a happy ending on it. But we are also looking at the lightheartedness of it.” One of the plays is campy, Keehn said, describing The Tiny Closet, in which an actor plays a nosy landlady in the comedy about privacy at the height of the McCarthy era.
The ensemble includes local actors Ray Ettinger, Tom Lancaster, Brad Shaw, Justin Speer and De De Deville. Each has strong ties to Kansas City’s LGBTQ community and history, and some have direct relationships to the Jewel Box Lounge itself.
For example, Brad Shaw worked at the Jewel Box and designed costumes for George Meadows and many of the female impersonators. Fans of the famous Late Night Theatre, known for its gender-bending roles, will remember Ettinger and De De Deville as actors in several of those productions. Deville continues her many personas of drag at various gay bars around Kansas City.
Also unique to this production is that DeVille appears in “boy drag,” portraying a closeted mortician in The Boy in the Basement, which Keehn said has been credited as the inspiration for the TV show Six Feet Under.
In addition to this theatrical event, Keehn said they will be focusing on other historical aspects of the Jewel Box with programs
while they have use of the space.
“De De DeVille is going to do a 1950s-60s drag show, a female impersonation show, so no lip syncing,” Keehn said. The show will bring in entertainers like Chris Collins, Sandy Kay and others who performed at the original Jewel Box, he said.
“We will be giving people a taste of what an actual drag show from the 1960s could have possibly looked like. Another program that we’ll be doing is a panel discussion with female impersonators, a younger generation and an older generation, at some point, and Stuart Hinds [of GLAMA> will moderate that,” he said.
The performances are scheduled for the first three weeks of February, and they could be extended to the fourth week if enough performances sell out.
Recommended for mature audiences, the production contains adult themes, nudity, and some strong language.
Public Hours and Showtimes
The exhibition, at the Jewel Box Lounge, 3227 Troost Ave., Kansas City, Mo., will be open to the general public from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays in February and to ticket-buyers 15 minutes before and after each performance.
Performances will be:
Friday, Feb. 1 @ 8 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 2 @ 4 p.m. &