In 'Some Like It Hot,' J. Harrison Ghee brings their whole self

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In 'Some Like It Hot,' J. Harrison Ghee brings their whole self
J. Harrison Ghee, center, in the musical “Some Like It Hot” at the Shubert Theater in New York, Jan. 27, 2023. The nonbinary actor has received a Tony Award nomination for a role in which all sides of them come together. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- No, J. Harrison Ghee did not grow up to be a Missionary Baptist pastor like their father, though they sang in church as a child in North Carolina and earned the nickname “Little Reverend Ghee.”

Nevertheless, eight shows a week, onstage at the Shubert Theater in the Broadway musical “Some Like It Hot,” Ghee — who uses they/them pronouns — is giving their own form of testimony.

Adapted from the classic 1959 Billy Wilder film, “Some Like It Hot” follows two musicians who, while fleeing the mob, disguise themselves as women. In a twist on the original, Ghee’s character, Jerry, not only becomes increasingly comfortable living as “Daphne,” but starts to feel more like his true self.

Having struggled to acknowledge a nonbinary identity, Ghee now regularly has queer people gathered at the stage door to thank the actor for making them feel “seen” and “represented,” Ghee said. Others just thank the actor for being authentic.

“This is my ministry,” Ghee said in a recent interview. “This is how I affect people.”

Slim and graceful at 6-foot-4, Ghee, 33, has earned critical praise as Jerry/Daphne and a Tony Award nomination for best leading actor in a musical. The actor’s personal lived experience has brought a poignancy to their performance.

“Ghee soars and soars,” said Helen Shaw in The New Yorker. Jesse Green, The New York Times’ chief theater critic, said Ghee “carefully traces Jerry’s transformation into Daphne, and then the merging of the two identities into a third that takes us into territory that’s far more complex than jokey drag.”

Ghee mines this complexity with both deep pathos and a light touch, appearing as at ease in a dashing three-piece suit as in an elegant beaded red gown.

“There is a personal ease, there is a professional ease,” said Christian Borle, who also earned a Tony nod for his performance as Joe, Jerry’s partner on the run. “I’m like the yapping dog and he is the calm center of the whole show. I’m throwing all this energy out and he can just be still.”

Ghee described the Tony nomination as “such a ride of emotions.”

“I’m just starting to come down from it,” they said.

As for having been nominated in a gendered category, Ghee said: “Wherever I am, I will show up as who I am. Someone’s compartmentalization of me doesn’t limit me in any way.

“I hope for the industry we can remove the gender of it,” they added, “because we are creators and we should free ourselves beyond so many labels and let the work speak for itself.”

Ghee likes to resist categorization even in their dress, wearing clothes that are as bold as their personality. In an interview over a cup of peppermint tea in Chelsea, they were stylish as usual in black leather pants, a yellow felt brim hat and Converse high-tops they’d designed. “People never know what to do with me, and I enjoy that,” they said. “I’m like: ‘This six-four Black queer human exists. And it made you think a little differently than when you left your house today. You’re welcome.’”

Growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Ghee was always drawn to the girls’ section of department stores and remembers pining for a lime green suit.

“Why do girls get all the fun options?” Ghee recalled asking their mother. “There’s all the sparkle and the ruffle,” while the boys’ section has “khaki and navy and you get a vest if you want to be festive.”

Eager to leave North Carolina, Ghee came to New York at 18 to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and began performing in drag clubs as Crystal Demure.

Working in drag helped Ghee develop as a theatrical performer in their subsequent gigs at Tokyo Disneyland and on cruise ships, they said, losing inhibitions and gaining agency onstage. “That is the place that freed me,” Ghee said, “helped me crack open in a way that I don’t know that I would have done.”

“It helped me tap into my superpower,” they added. “That was my playground of creativity. I was in creative control as a drag queen. I got to make the mixes and design the looks.”

It is a freedom Ghee brought to the role of Lola in the national tour of “Kinky Boots,” a part they took over on Broadway in 2017. In 2021, they originated the role of Andre in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Actor Billy Porter, who originally played Lola in “Kinky Boots” and who directed Ghee in a recent episode of the Fox TV series “Accused,” said that when watching Ghee in “Some Like It Hot,” his “breath was taken away to see the intersection of all of these things” — race, gender and old-fashioned musical theater.

“I think about the generations to come, about the little Black gay boys in the world trying to make it,” Porter said.

Ghee came out as gay to their parents at 21. Their father said, “‘I don’t know where this came from and where I went wrong, but you’re still my son. You’re a part of me. You represent me. I love you,’” Ghee recalled. “That’s all I needed to hear. I was so prepared to be disowned. I mean, Missionary Baptist pastor in North Carolina? It was preached that it was wrong and that it was a sin. So, of course, I had all this internal warring within myself for so long.”

Their mother also initially resisted. “She was like, ‘This is not God’s plan for your life. This is not how we raised you. What are you doing for this money you’re getting? You’re out here prostituting,’” Ghee recalled. “She didn’t want me to get ‘Kinky Boots.’ She said, ‘What is it with you and this drag? If you get it, I don’t want to see it.’”

But by opening night, she had come around, Ghee said, telling friends, “‘I couldn’t imagine him doing anything else.’”

And his father recently called to say, “Your life has a purpose. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

When casting “Some Like It Hot,” the show’s director, Casey Nicholaw, said that Ghee was his clear choice and that the actor became instrumental in bringing the character to life. “We kind of built it around” Ghee, Nicholaw said. “Sometimes there is a perfect fit for an actor in a role, and this is definitely one of those times.”

The moment in the show that perhaps resonates the most with the actor’s personal journey is Daphne’s number “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather.” Ghee sings: “Yеs, I have tried to love many ladies/Back when I sang in a much lower key/Now you could knock me over with a feather, ‘cause Joe,/The lady that I’m loving is me.”

“There is a little Daphne in everybody,” Ghee said. “And that doesn’t mean everyone has to run out and put a dress on. But let life free you to be more than you imagine for yourself.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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