Onstage eight performances a week, J. Harrison Ghee, in all their lithe, leggy glory, taps and tangos with Jazz Age abandon through the role of Jerry/Daphne in Broadway’s latest hit, Some Like It Hot.
On a brisk January morning, hours before showtime, Ghee zooms in for our conversation in a decidedly more zen mode, ensconced in the peaceful environs of, perhaps, a meditation room. The vibe, accentuated by white orchids on a side table, is warm, peaceful, intentional — a word Ghee brings up to describe their approach to everything from personal growth and relationships to political involvement.
For years, Ghee, who identifies as nonbinary, “stayed out of politics,” but now endeavors “to reframe, refocus, and find how I can be effective amongst all of that. I used to just be in my own little corner, in my own little chair, but now I need to help build some more chairs and spread the love.”
The North Carolina native spreads love aplenty starring alongside Tony-winner Christian Borle in the stage musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy classic with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe. Some might say there’s politics in the mix, too, given the radical reimagining of the film by the musical’s creative team, Hairspray composer/lyricist Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman, and book writers Matthew López (The Inheritance) and Amber Ruffin.
Ghee and Borle, taking on roles made famous by Lemmon and Curtis, respectively, still play a pair of Chicago jazz musicians who witness a gang massacre, and decide to hightail it out of town disguised in wigs and dresses as the newest members of Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators, an all-female band. Borle’s character, Joe, pretending to be Josephine, still falls for Sugar Kane, the band’s voluptuous singer, played by Monroe in the movie, and brought to life onstage by Adrianna Hicks.
Ghee’s character, Jerry, however, dons a disguise as Daphne, and embarks on a journey of self-discovery that Wilder’s film didn’t contemplate. The screwball comedy zings, as lively as ever, but the cross-dressing entendres that some considered passé, or just fundamentally transphobic, have been reconsidered. This Jerry/Daphne is not a joke in a dress.
A richer expression of gender fluidity than Broadway might be accustomed to, Jerry/Daphne fits perfectly within Ghee’s career evolution — from performing and hosting in NYC clubs as drag alter ego Crystal Demure, to starring as Lola in the Broadway touring production of Kinky Boots (with a memorable stop at the Kennedy Center), then making their debut as Lola on Broadway. Ghee followed that triumph by originating the role of Andre Mayem in another film-to-stage adaptation, Mrs. Doubtfire.
Then came Daphne.
“Daphne is definitely infused with some Crystal,” remarks Ghee. “In every one of these roles that I do, Crystal is in there, the layer is. And my friends who know me and know my drag will always clock it. They’ll be like, ‘I know that Crystal energy.'”
Onscreen, Ghee will guest star as a drag character on FOX’s new crime anthology series Accused. “It’s just a grand old time,” says Ghee. “There’s some accusing. I am the accused, and there’s some love, there’s some layers, and there is some dra-ma. And Billy Porter directed me in the episode. It’s really exciting.” For now, Ghee seems pleased to ride that excitement, with calm and intention, through their run as Jerry/Daphne and well beyond.
METRO WEEKLY: Our editor interviewed you for a Metro Weekly cover story in 2016, when you were performing at the Kennedy Center in Kinky Boots. I’d love to hear what you might remember about it.
J. HARRISON GHEE: It’s actually one of my favorite tour memories. That interview, that moment was very special. One of my best friends happened to be there with me, celebrating my birthday and we were in the Bird Room at the Kennedy Center. It was so many things.
MW: Looking back, so much has happened. How could you possibly even sum up what’s happened in the years since?
GHEE: I can’t. If you would’ve told me then I’d be here now, and all that we’ve experienced, I’d be like, “Huh?” Because even in that moment I was just so full and so grateful for that. And I was just happy to have that moment. And so I’m grateful for the evolution in that time, the growth and the exploration and the continual finding and seeking of truth.
MW: As far as Some Like it Hot is concerned, I had a great time at the show. Are you having a good time?
GHEE: Oh, every day. We look around at work and we’re like, “Why don’t we just have a good time?” We cut up, and we really do love each other in such a way. It’s such an incredible cast, such an incredible group of human beings I get to have this experience with, really.
MW: I’m always curious about performers. Today’s a show day, right? What’s your routine in general?
GHEE: I usually stay in the bed as long as I can, but today we had a press event over at Serendipity. They were doing “Some Like it Frozen” hot chocolate. So we did the tasting of that this morning with some cast members and it was pretty special. But my routine is, I lay low, I stay chill during the day. I’d usually have a vibe and just keep it mellow around the house, listening to music. My warm up usually consists of my shower time, and just screlting out. That’s where I do my best singing in the shower.
MW: And I see you’re scarfed up.
GHEE: Well listen, this New York weather, she’s trying to be warm one day, cold the next. You got to stay protected. So yeah, it’s hard to dress for the weather sometimes, but I do my best.
MW: I want to start with the fun stuff because there’s a lot of really fun stuff in this show. First of all, let’s talk about the wardrobe because, let’s say, Jerry gets to wear nice suits, but Daphne gets to wear some really gorgeous clothes. Do you have a favorite frock in the show?
GHEE: My finale costume, that’s the change I go into excited about. I’m like, “All right. Yeah, get me into this frock.” During fittings, they just showed me a swatch of the beading that was going to be on my lapels and I fully burst into tears. We had caught the weight, the fullness of the moment.
Gregg Barnes is such an incredible designer, and this is my second time working with him. He had done Kinky Boots, and he takes such care in all of his work and in everyone. It’s not just because I’m the lead in the show. Even when I was a swing in Kinky Boots, he would sit down and be like, “Okay, what colors do you get complimented on?” Picking out fabrics with me. He takes such care of everyone in the show, and it shows in his work. His design is incredible, truly.
We fully, during the pandemic, had multiple conversations, still being unsure of where the world was going. But we had calls where he would talk about his ideas and send me sketches, and we would send back and forth pictures of inspirations and things we liked, and who inspired me of the era and all the things. So it really was a collaboration of ideas and energy towards building the character together, and him watching the workshops we had done, and crafting the costumes according to my action and how I was playing the character.
MW: That actually totally fits with my favorite dress, because I’m going to say it, the red “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather” dress. Because you as Daphne look fantastic in that dress. You move so well in that dress.
GHEE: Funny enough, that was the second red dress, because there was a whole other one that was designed to begin with, which was ev-ery-thing. Had these long sleeves, it was a full gown, but it just didn’t feel right. Once [the director] Casey Nicholaw saw it onstage, he was just like, “You’re in a different world when we go to Mexico.” He was like, “You just look like you’re going to a different party than everybody else.”
So Gregg had to go back to the drawing board and figure out something else, and came up with that idea. And then in the fitting, tweaked it and we found the things and the details, even down to just what’s happening on the straps and picking out trims and beads and things. He really was like, “Ah, does this feel right to you? Does that feel like Daphne?” So it really is always an open conversation with Gregg.
MW: I ask so much about fashion, one, because I care about it. But two, I think especially in that number, something that is conveyed is how much dressing like that makes the character feel like themselves. Dressing how you dress is a really big deal, and I just want to tell you that came through in those moments. How is it resonating with you?
GHEE: That is very true. I am what I wear, and that is something I’m definitely more intentional about coming out of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, I used to say I wasn’t a political person, and I didn’t vote and I wasn’t a part of it, and I just kept far away from it for a lot of reasons. But I had a revelation for myself, and it was confirmed when somebody sent me, randomly, an interview that Toni Morrison had done and something she said. It was like, “As artists, our existence is innately political.” That’s what we do as artists. We comment on the times. That is how we work. That is how we’re effective.
So as a Black queer artist in this world, if I leave my home, I’m making a political statement. So every day in my life I’m very intentional about how I dress and how I present myself according to how I feel. And not based on what somebody else will perceive of me.
I’m like, “Great. No, this is how I feel today. You’re going to get this fantasy, whatever it is.” And so that’s what I love about the conversation of building those costumes with Gregg. Even that finale costume, I was like, “It needs to end in a world that is not definitive. It cannot be that I go back into a suit.” I was like, “I need this.” And even talking to Josh Marquette to have that wig, I was like, “Nope. I need something else, to end in a world that is still giving that essence of more, and not limiting it and making it so definitive.” And that’s what I’m excited about with the journey I get to have every night to share with audiences, that there’s a little Daphne in everybody.
MW: You’re right, that it doesn’t end with some kind of pat label stamped on what this experience is that we saw. You mentioned the wigs. About how many times do you transform between the two personas in the course of a show?
GHEE: Once I get into Daphne, it’s Daphne all the way. And that’s the thing, you just keep peeling back these layers and finding more. And again, that’s a part of the journey that I’m excited to share with people. A motto I live by is, “You have to free yourself to see yourself.” You have to give yourself permission to find the fuller depths of who you are. So often, I used to be annoyed when people would double-take at me in the street because I’m like, “What are you looking at?” And that was long before I was making the bold fashion choices I do now.
And also people being like, “Oh, I could never wear that thing.”
And I’m like, “No, you haven’t given yourself the permission to do that. You’re limiting yourself based on how you’ve been conditioned to dress or conditioned to live.” It’s just fabric. You can wear it however you want to. As Patti LaBelle would say, “You get up in the morning and check your drag.” Okay?
MW: Since you brought up “You have to free yourself to see yourself,” because I really love that, is there anything about playing this role that has helped you see more of yourself?
GHEE: Oh, every single day. And that’s the fun. I love the opportunity, eight times a week, to step into the role of Jerry/Daphne, and see how I can crack myself open a little more or what it will tap into for me personally.
I literally had a moment the other night, and I don’t know what triggered it, but during the show, I was walking in my freedom and it made me think about my parents and how they were limited growing up in North Carolina in so many ways, and being like, “Ah!” — the freedom they never got to experience, and the freedom that I hope for them even now in their later years. And I want to be able to crack it for them, but I’m like, I just got to keep doing my work and hopefully it encourages and inspires them. But that’s what is so exciting about live theater. It’s eight times a week to get to go to therapy.
MW: And how do you integrate an epiphany like that into what you’re doing in the moment?
GHEE: I just use it as fuel. I definitely had an emotional moment during a change, and I’m grateful to God for my dresser, Mikey [Piscitelli], because he knows me so well. And in those moments, he’ll either put a hand on my back, or hand me the tissue and know that I’m okay and know what I’m dealing with. And then it’s just like, “Ah, yeah,” we keep going. And just use that — it fuels my ministry.
MW: Oh, what is your ministry?
GHEE: The truth, at the end of the day. Somebody asked me this the other day — if I was at a church, what would my ministry be? And it’s like, it’s a ministry of intention, purpose, and love. Those are the things I live by. I do everything with intention that fuels my purpose, and I do it all under the umbrella of love.
MW: I think a lot of people think they are preaching truth, but what’s true to them is not necessarily true. Okay, back to fun stuff about the show. The dancing. I saw somebody comment online about how people love a good, old-fashioned tap number. This show is full of good, old-fashioned tap numbers. And you guys look great doing it. Do you and Christian Borle have any tricks for staying in perfect sync, tapping side by side? Because you make it look effortless, but I don’t think it’s effortless.
GHEE: No, we’re definitely putting in a little effort and work, because tap is not our ministry. And we joke about it, but it’s the chemistry and the trust we’ve built with each other. We have spent the time in the rehearsal room during the workshops and outside of it really drilling it, and being like, no, we’ve seen each other in that frustrated place of trying to get the step and one of us picking up the step better than the other and being like, “Nope, I’ll carry you here. No, you carry me there.” And that trust and that balance of being like, “No, we got each other,” and we know that like nothing else. And we’ve had moments during previews, where one of us has slipped or had a thing, but we just literally and figuratively carry each other, and we’re like, “Nope, I got you, friend. Don’t worry.”
MW: I couldn’t help thinking, while watching you, of Tommy Tune. You’re tall. Is that any kind of a special challenge doing any of this choreography, especially because you’re doing choreography a lot in heels and dresses?
GHEE: Well, the heels and the dresses, that’s fun for me. I’m like, “Please put me in it.” I’ll twirl all day. And again, put me in a Gregg Barnes costume and I’m going to live. And it’s funny because I am tall, but quite often, my depth and size perception is so off. I forget that I’m six foot four. In my mind, I’m like 5’9, 5’10. So I’m just like, “Yeah, I’m just moving. I don’t know what I’m…” But it’s fun. And Casey Nicholaw, also very collaborative, put things on us that worked for us. And if it didn’t make sense to our bodies or feel right, it was like, “Let’s go back to the drawing board [and] try something else,” or, “That’s not quite it,” or would give us a general step and then we can add our je ne sais quoi to it.
MW: I see that in the red dress. I just have an image of your leg thrown out, and that’s a lot of leg. It’s a great picture. Now, also you dance in the “female” partner role in “Fly, Mariposa, Fly,” which brings to mind the line about Ginger Rogers having to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels. What’s your take on that quote now, especially because you, I’m sure, have danced both sides?
GHEE: It’s fun. I love the versatility of it. Finding the freedom to be able to step into that, and put that in my body and trust it and not question it and not make it a gender thing. I’m like, no, I’m just dancing, and I just happen to be dancing on this side opposite another human being. And it’s something I’m more conscious about every day of my life, of the removal of having to gender things for any reason. Reasons I say I enjoy working with all the human beings I get to work with. And that’s the fun also of the diversity that exists in our company, there are so many types of human beings and we honor and respect everyone in every way. And it’s just so beautiful. It really is.
MW: I would imagine that playing a part like this, or Lola in Kinky Boots, brings you really close to the idea of how much gender presentation is sort of arbitrary.
GHEE: Oh, very that. And it’s also funny to watch people conditionally process me. If I put on makeup or if I put on a skirt or a thing, I’ll get these feminine pronouns. But also, you still see this confused look. Again, it’s just fabric. Or why can’t I just be a human wearing makeup? It doesn’t have to be a “she” thing.
MW: Yeah. It is really arbitrary that people have decided that eyeliner can’t be… It doesn’t have to mean anything other than “I like how this looks.”
GHEE: Okay. It made me feel the fantasy today, and you’re welcome.
MW: You were talking about people processing you. I want to talk about processing the differences between the movie and the show. I came to this show as somebody with really high esteem for the movie, as a Billy Wilder fan. Jack Lemmon is my favorite classic film actor. I love Marilyn Monroe, the whole nine. So I had to let go of a lot of that watching this, and the show won me over by being itself, and especially with the meaning in the story, as it’s a different story. I imagine my experience is not very different from a lot of people’s. What are you hearing from people about how they process how this show is not Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot?
GHEE: They’re, like you said, very accepting of the show and what it is. Again, that’s the fun of live theater. Even if you come in with a preconceived notion of what you expect or what you are hoping for, we get to transport you into a world and into a place that we’ve created that just makes you escape from the world that you live in, and takes you to somewhere else, and hopefully you leave better than when you came or just thinking a little differently.
It’s so wonderful to watch people have that experience, or to be at the stage door and to see older, cisgender white couples who are like, “We grew up with this movie. We loved it. Your fluid journey in the show, it’s beautiful. We love it.” And you’re like, “You’re welcome.” You too can learn something. You too can grow. You too can evolve. You too can take something you thought you knew and bring it into a fresh perspective. And that’s so delightful and wonderful about our experience. Some like it hot, and that ain’t bad.
MW: From the performance point of view, you’re originating a role in a new show, but on the other hand, you’re stepping into a role that people associate with another actor that people really love, and they’ve had sixty-odd years to love that performance. Is it at all tricky for you to create something original in that?
GHEE: No. Quite often people will ask, how do you honor Jack Lemmon? And I had never seen the movie before joining this project. So I did my research to watch it before doing any of the readings or any of the workshops, and took it for what it was. I absorbed it and loved it and honored it. And then from there, my journey and my job is to create my Jerry and my Daphne. And yes, things will naturally infuse or find their way in there. As Billy Porter would say, “You steal the good stuff.” You use what works, and then you find the way to infuse yourself. And with the collaborative work that we were always doing from every angle, every part of the company, it just found its way to where we are. And it’s something I can be proud of.
MW: You bring up Billy Porter. It makes me wonder, how do you think your Jerry/Daphne would be if you hadn’t done Lola?
GHEE: Well. That’s a good question.
MW: Is it like a step towards?
GHEE: It definitely was a stepping stone. It definitely prepared me for this. I did drag long before Lola, so it’s almost hard to delineate what did, but it was like, yes, that was definitely a tool in the arsenal to prepare me for this moment. I can’t deny that. And it definitely was a big part of the journey. Yeah, I don’t know that I sat and thought [about] it. Now I’m going to think on that some more.
MW: I was reading the Playbill interview with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, where Wittman was saying that a big part of the story for them was summed up in a line that Matthew López wrote: “The world only reacts to what it sees. And in my experience, the world doesn’t have very good eyesight.” What does that line mean to you?
GHEE: Oh, first of all, it’s one of my favorite moments in the show for the sake of hearing how audiences receive that. It is always an audible, “Ohhh.” That’s like what my life coach would say is a truth mirror moment. It’s very true. The world doesn’t have very good eyesight, because we’ve been conditioned to see things and judge it immediately and compartmentalize and make it a thing and put a label on it and slap it over there. And that’s where I can put the thing, as opposed to being like, I see a thing, but I don’t have to judge this book by what I see. Let me dig a little deeper.
And that’s something, it took me a while, even for my journey as an individual when I was younger, I got picked on in elementary school and middle school and I went through phases of how I responded. Elementary school, I was the tenderest little, I’d cry at the drop of a dime. And then middle school, I was trying to fight back. And then I had this moment in high school where I was like, “No, if you haven’t taken the time to sit and talk to me or get to know me, your judgment of me shouldn’t affect me because you’re ignorant to who I am.” So again, that line, “The world doesn’t have good eyesight,” it’s like, let’s print that on a T-shirt and sell it.
MW: Talking about people responding to the show, I can imagine that there are people in this climate, or in any climate, who might react negatively to the progressive lean of the story. I can just imagine the complaints about “woke politics.” It’s a very 2023, 2022 version of this story. What would you say to anybody like that? What do you think they might be missing?
GHEE: It’s something I’m grateful to Matthew López for. I saw him do an interview with Amber Ruffin recently, and he was saying, “People put on the show that we’re doing this period piece with a 2022, 2023 lens, but these human beings have always existed. We’re just removing the 1933 lens that we’ve been capped with.” So it’s again, that conditional way of thinking and seeing things that people are feeling so safe, and I can hold onto this because it’s just like… Yeah, but again, the truth you’re telling yourself didn’t work then, and it’s not going to work for you now or moving forward, so you might as well give into the change that already happened. Again, I’m a seeker of truth and freedom. Freedom is something I walk in, or try to walk in, daily. Freedom is joy. We free ourselves, we get to a better place of existing and having empathy for others, and being open to love.
MW: The show also addresses race and the race of the characters in a way that was not even a thought for the movie. What do you think that commentary, some of it unspoken and some of it spoken really humorously, adds to what the story is?
GHEE: It just is another sprinkle, just back to that line of, the world doesn’t have good eyesight. Limiting someone based on their race or their skin color is so limited. And to be able to do it in such a way in this show is so fun. And one of the things Casey Nicholaw was very adamant about, and continues, his big note to us as a company is to always be honest and be truthful. Yeah, we’re doing a farce. Yes, we’re doing a comedy, but we have to live as these characters and be truthful about it. It has to come from an honest place. And that’s the beauty of it.
Billy Porter has seen the show, and we had drinks after and he loved the fact that we touched on so much. He was like, “Y’all get to just be people.” He was like, “All these beautiful Black people just to get to be people.” They don’t have to be these tropes, these extra, “Okay, Sugar has a drinking problem and it tears her life apart.” No, this is just a part of this character who lives her life, and we don’t have to do this woe-is-me. It just layers the story even that much more beautifully.
MW: Now, the last time you appeared on Metro Weekly‘s cover, I believe you were not publicly identifying as nonbinary. So in these eventful years since we last spoke to you, what led you to want to come out publicly and share that part of your life?
GHEE: It’s something in my growth and seeking of it, I’ve always felt. Again, very much like my character, I didn’t have the words for it or the language for it. And I’ve never loved a label or a limit anyway. But the truth of it is just undeniable for me.
It’s a conversation I still have to have with my mother and father. But in the sense of, we were talking the other day and I just said it, and she’s like, “Well, when did you start using that word?” And I was like, “Oh, what?” She’s like, “I’ve seen it in interviews, but we’ve not talked about it.” And it’s for the sake of not trying to force anything on anyone or beating anybody over their head with a thing. I’m just living my existence and my experience, and now I need to bring them into that even more. And it’s just the understanding of the power of my fluidity, and where I live and I exist and how I present can change from day to day, from moment to moment. And I find power in all of it. And that is something I don’t take lightly, and is another layer of my ministry.
MW: Has it happened before, that your parents or somebody close to you has discovered something about you through a more public forum and then come back to you like, “Oh, what’s this?”
GHEE: Yes, because even doing Kinky Boots at the time, and I think I said this in that interview, my father was like, “Oh, you get paid to imitate drag queens. Just don’t bring any wigs home.” And I was like, “Wow. Uh, bruh, we got to talk, ’cause little do you know.” But again, that was for the sake of protecting them and myself. I’m now at a place where I’m like, no, I have to seek the truth and I cannot pretend that this part of me doesn’t exist for someone else’s compartmentalization of me as a human being.
MW: Absolutely. Have your folks seen Some Like it Hot?
GHEE: Not yet. My brother has seen it. He came for opening night and had the best time.
MW: As far as drag roles, or any kind of roles that require performing gender, you could gain a rep as a go-to performer for that. It could also become a type. How are you trying to balance it in the roles that you would take on?
GHEE: I’m meeting the moment for what it is. I’m not fighting it. I’m not trying to overthink it. There would be a time before that I’d be like, when I started doing drag, I kept it secret, I kept it hidden because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a drag queen. I didn’t want to be locked into that. But I have come to learn that drag is a part of my ministry and how I am effective in this world. And again, that’s where my power lives, so I’m not going to fight it. But I’m also grateful to have opportunities to show the versatility of who I am, and to show the full extent, and that a drag artist or anyone has layers and depth, and that it’s more than just what you see. So it’s just a matter of being truthful to who these characters are, and finding how to portray that truth and express the humanity in these people.
MW: Will we ever see Crystal Demure again?
GHEE: Yes. A lot of my friends are like, “When is Crystal coming back out?” Which is very funny. I feel like Crystal is in a cocoon right now and revamping, and I have to find the right moment to let her shine again. And I’m okay with that. Drag has always been something that I’ve done on my terms. It’s not something that I just gotta do all the time. But when the moment comes.
MW: I’ll trust you to know that moment. This is a moment that the world, I think, needs all the drag love it could get, because there’s too much drag hate and it literally just makes no sense to me. None at all.
GHEE: No. And that’s one of the things I love about drag. Drag is a freeing tool. I love when my friends ask me to put them in drag. And to watch people be tentative about asking, and then the process of seeing it happen.
And then my favorite moment is the first five to ten minutes, once they’ve seen themselves in drag or they have experienced themselves, and you see the inner queen in them. [Gestures a flower blossoming.] They find themselves and then they’re like, “I can’t be stopped.” And you’re like, “Right.” It is this freeing tool that gives people the power and the permission to be their most beautiful and authentic and freest self. And it is mind-blowing to me that someone would want to diminish that.
Some Like It Hot is playing on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th St. in New York. Tickets are $58 to $278. Visit www.somelikeithotmusical.com or call 212-239-6200.
Follow J. Harrison Ghee on Twitter at @jharrisonghee.
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