Do you get jazzed about jazz? Hopped up about history? Thrilled by theater? Here’s a great chance to indulge all of these passions. One Missouri city’s celebrating its playwriting talent in a Theatre Lab Festival starting May 18.

By Peg Cameron Gill

For the second year, Kansas City Public Theatre is presenting its annual Theatre Lab Fest, a celebration of the city’s playwriting talent.

Over the course of the festival weekend, audiences can view nightly performances of the world-premiere production of “Tipton,” attend new play-in-development readings, and participate in several interactive events such as a Playwriting Jam and 5-Page Fringe, in which any playwright can bring up to 5 pages of a script to hand out and have read aloud in front of an audience.

“Tipton” is an experimental exploration of jazz musician Billy Tipton’s life through his own writing, written accounts from his friends and family, and through the music he made. This musical revue interweaves Tipton’s vaudevillian performance style with a subtle story of transgender identity in the music world. This production not only celebrates one of the unsung heroes of Kansas City jazz, but provides a reflective perspective on transgender identity, double lives, and navigating a life in the arts.

General admission is free at the door to all events. A limited number of reservations may be purchased in advance for “Tipton” here.

See the full festival schedule here.

A bit about Billy Tipton if you’re unfamiliar with his story: Born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, Dorothy Lucille Tipton grew up in Kansas City, Mo. Assigned female at birth, Tipton studied piano and saxophone as a high school student, but school policy did not permit girls to play in the school band.

Passionate about playing jazz, Tipton began dressing as a man to get work with other jazz musicians, since opportunities for women in the industry were nearly nonexistent at that time. At first, Tipton only presented as male when performing, but by 1940 had assumed a male identity 24/7. 

He slowly made a name for himself  as a musician and enjoyed a small amount of success in the 1950s and ‘60sin 1958, his group The Tipton Trio, was even offered a recording contract and a gig opening for Liberace,  but Tipton turned it down. 

Throughout his life, Tipton hid the secret of his birth gender—concocting an elaborate story that his genitals had been badly damaged in a car accident, and that he had also broken several ribs. He claimed that to protect his damaged chest he had to bind it. 

At one point, Tipton settled down with fellow nightclub performer Kitty Kelly in 1960, and they adopted three sons. By the 1970s, he was forced to retire from music due to his advanced arthritis. By 1989, he was suffering from a peptic ulcer that began to hemorrhage, but refused to call a doctor. 

At the age of 74, while paramedics worked unsuccessfully to save Tipton’s life, his son William learned that his father was assigned female at birth. Kelly had arranged for Tipton’s body to be cremated, in an attempt to keep the secret, but Tipton’s double life was exposed when William ended up on the talk show circuit.  

Tipton’s life story would later inspire the feature film “The Crying Game,” the play ”M. Butterfly,” an opera and other works.

Interested in reading more about Kansas City and jazz? Tune into this Missouri Life article.

For hundreds more events, visit Missouri Life’s Event Calendar.