KC Public’s Theatre Lab Presents a Fascinating Story but Could Have Gone Deeper With “Tipton”

A young couple sits on the edge of a stage, staring lovingly at each other.

Vanessa Davis and Ahafia Jurkiewicz-Miles in Tipton (KC Public Theatre)

Despite being a fascinating figure in Kansas City’s history, Billy Tipton is not an especially well-known name. Even playwright Ahafia Jurkiewicz-Miles didn’t know the name until they were approached by Kansas City Public Theatre with the idea of producing a play based on Tipton’s life and work as part of the company’s 2023 Theatre Lab Fest. The result, Tipton, is an engaging profile of a complex man that really should be more well-known. And while I wish the play had gone deeper with Tipton’s story, it’s a good start for audiences unfamiliar with his story until now.

Billy Tipton was born in Oklahoma in the 1930s and raised in Kansas City. He bounced between the two and beyond while establishing his career as a jazz musician here as well as on the road, capitalizing on the anonymity and possibility of reinvention afforded to a traveling musician. That anonymity was not just welcome but necessary for Tipton’s survival as a transgender man in the mid-20th Century.

In addition to writing, Jurkiewicz-Miles stars as Tipton in the eponymous production. The play, directed by Elizabeth Bettendorf Bowman, is half biography and half musical revue, with Jurkiewicz-Miles playing piano alongside drummer T.J. Warren and bassist Grant Klinksick as a lively jazz trio. Vanessa Davis fills in as nearly every other character in Tipton’s life, including his numerous wives. Davis’ range is impressive, depicting deep sorrow one moment and bringing levity with a cheeky comedic turn the next.

The music is charming and evocative but the biographical element, while extremely interesting in the information it provides, ultimately struggles to elevate that information into anything more than straightforward exposition. It’s clear that Jurkiewicz-Miles didn’t want to take any liberties with Tipton’s story or sensationalize any part of it—which I wholeheartedly believe is the appropriate approach. But the result swings so far in the other direction as to flatten many of the most compelling elements of the story. We do get glimpses of Tipton’s emotional depths—his passion for music, his love for his wives and his family, his fear and pain at having to live a life of secrecy. But these moments come nearly entirely in the form of characters writing letters, and therefore presumably taken verbatim from primary sources Jurkiewicz-Miles found in their research. The stretches in between seem to deliberately stop short of ascribing emotional resonance—any presumption of motivation or reaction—onto the events of Tipton’s life. It is possible to dramatize a person’s life without sensationalizing it, and hopefully this new work, which has a strong structure and fascinating source material, is the first step toward bringing a more fleshed-out version of this compelling life brought to the stage.

Tipton,a production of Kansas City Public Theatre as part of the 2023 Theatre Lab, runs through May 21 at the Charlotte Street Foundation, 3333 Wyoming St. For more information, visit kcpublictheatre.org.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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