By FRANK RIZZO
There’s a show-stopping moment in the Broadway musical Some Like It Hot, based on the classic 1959 film comedy.
In the new show, Jerry and Joe are two musicians in Depression-era Chicago who disguise themselves as women and join a touring all-female band in order to flee gangsters after accidentally witnessing a mob hit.
Late in the second act, Jerry—who has gradually been coming to terms with the unexpected joy he feels in his feminine ruse—finally embraces his inner “Daphne” in a song called “You Could Have Knocked Me Over with a Feather.”
In the case of J. Harrison Ghee who plays Jerry/Daphne, the song is both profound—and personal.
The out-and-proud, non-binary, six-foot-four (without heels) actor—and looking divine is a blazing red gown —transforms the song into a triumphant anthem, celebrating their combined essences and singing:
You coulda knocked me over with a feather/
You coulda knocked this train off its track/
For weeks I had a funny feeling/
That something was revealing/
Now this genie’s out the bottle/
And she ain’t goin’ back…
Well, 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 lovin’ is me.
In a Zoom interview from the living room of his New York apartment, Ghee reflected on his own personal journey as someone who is gay, who does drag, and is gender fluid.
“I can’t say there was a definitive moment for myself,” when asked if he had a similar ‘aha’ moment, “so no, no ‘feather.’ It’s something I’ve always felt and it’s something I’m reconnecting with [with the show], freeing myself to let it out more.”
But his change manifests itself in other ways, too.
“Prior to the pandemic I used to say I wasn’t a political person, but since that time you could say I had a ‘feather’ moment realizing that as a black queer human in this world, I am a political statement. So, I started living even more out loud with the understanding that when I leave my home I’m making a statement, so I might as well give the world something to look at, something to think or feel differently about, and to walk in my joy.”
Getting Past Baptist Roots
Ghee wears his personhood elegantly, whether it’s glamorously walking the red carpet in top hat and satin gown, or more humbly meditating at his little shrine in his living room. But with the spotlight on him now, he has stepped up to a new calling, as a kind of “minister of intention, purpose and love,” putting the human back in humanity.
It runs in the family. The child of a Missionary Baptist pastor, Ghee was raised in Fayetteville, N.C. Within a strict upbringing, Ghee found joy in singing in the family’s church choir, performing in plays, playing in the marching band and in cheerleading for his school.
“My dad would say how I’d be killing this grass pretending to be an entire marching band in the backyard all by myself, dancing to the beat of literally of my own drums,” says Ghee laughing.
That’s sense of freedom is something Ghee wants to reclaim.
“What has helped me now in my identity journey is my ability to tap into the purest version of myself, which is ‘the little me.’ I feel that as a child, we know who we are, but society, our family, and the world get in the way of that, and all we’re doing now as adults is fighting to get back to that innocence and purity of who we are.”
Ghee was bullied in school for effete mannerisms, and there were moments when the confidence was shaken, and fear took over. But eventually his teen self became resilient, not only disallowing the slurs but also reaching out for understanding.
“At first, I fought back and yelled at anyone who had anything to say to me. But then I got to the point in high school of being more confident, and I took the time to sit down with them and ask, ‘Why are you so bothered by what I’m doing?’ I couldn’t allow these things to keep me down because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to be effective in the ministry and the purpose in life I was created to do.”
Acting Gigs and Drag
After graduating from high school in 2007, the 18-year-old quickly split to New York, attending the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, followed by his first professional jobs at Disney in Japan and later as lead vocalist on the Norwegian Cruise Line.
Far from home, Ghee came out as gay and then began exploring drag in the persona of Crystal Demure.
“Drag used to be my excuse to play with my feminine side and where I got to live in that place where it exists in me. But now I find the fun in letting it all play together.”
Though Crystal is still around, Ghee says he feels comfortable expressing gender ambiguity on his own.
“That’s one of the things I was excited about doing [Some Like It Hot], because it allows me to take this journey with audiences and show that yes, there is a little bit of Daphne in everybody—and you have to trust that and listen to your inner queen. She will always tell you how she wants to feel and how she wants to be. That energy is guiding you to be free.”
Coming Out in Many Ways
Coming out professionally as a gay and non-binary person was not a challenge. Ghee says there was no big sit-down with his agent and manager and others in his professional sphere. “They saw my growth and honored that, and that’s one of the things I like about the team I have. ”
Coming out to the folks was another matter—and several times as well: as a gay person, as a drag artist and as non-binary.
Ghee came out as gay when he was 21 when he was performing in Japan, sending both parents an email with the declaration of his sexuality. The actor was prepared for his father to disown him—but he didn’t. Ghee’s father struggled with the news but ended by saying, “You’re my son. You’re a part of me. You represent me, and I love you,” and that was all Ghee needed to hear.
The first line of Ghee’s mother’s email showed there was less of an issue: “LOL, I’ve known as long as you’ve known.”
But still there was the drag aspect of Ghee’s life and that wasn’t shared with the family…for a few more years.
In 2015, Ghee starred as Lola in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots, a role originated on Broadway by Billy Porter. Ghee became the first established drag artist to play Lola, who saves a small shoe company from ruin by devising thigh-high, spike- heeled boots made exclusively for drag queens.
Ghee’s mother knew for some time about his drag persona, as did his brother, “but for my dad it wasn’t until the night before he saw the show that he found out that the role of Lola wasn’t that much of a stretch for his offspring. “He said, ‘Oh, you get to imitate drag queens. That sounds like fun, just don’t bring any wigs home.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, the time has come. We must sit down, sir.’ But that was also empowering because I got to show him a portfolio of my drag. I had done photo shoots, and I was able to show him that drag was an art, and that yes, I created that. I styled that. I had the wherewithal to put these things together artistically. This is what I do. I can’t run from that. This is my ministry.”
Some Like it Fluid
The conversations about gender, sexuality and identity are still continuing.
“Last week I was FaceTime-ing with my mom and I said ‘nonbinary,’ and she stopped the conversation and said, ‘Hey, when did you start using this word? I’ve seen it in interviews.’ We hadn’t had that conversation yet. With all that was going on [with the show] and because I wasn’t trying to force [the issue] on anyone, we had never talked about it. Oftentimes I would shy away from having those conversations out of fear of how it would be received. I was at work at the time, and she said, ‘OK, we’ll talk about it later, but just know that I clocked it.'”
Ghee has learned over the years that he has to give others “the space and grace” to have those conversations and “reframing and refocusing how I approach this for my own place and joy. It’s not about ‘coming out.’ As a lot of people say, it’s about ‘letting in.’ It’s about, ‘I’m letting you in to know more of me. I’m letting you understand me more as a human. I’m trusting you more with parts of me.’ My mom and I have always been a little better at having these conversations. I haven’t even ventured to start that conversation with my father.”
A Different Velma
Ghee also showed their range in 2018 by starring opposite Harry Connick, Jr. in a new musical version of the 1973 Oscar-winning film, The Sting, playing the Robert Redford role to Connick, who took on the Paul Newman role.
“It was such a beautiful experience and to share it with Harry Connick—and the humanity and heart that man has. The conversations we would have just about life and being artists and how we approach the work that we do. I learned so much from that experience.”
Ghee’s TV credits include HBO’s High Maintenance and the Netflix series, Raising Dion.
In early 2020, Ghee was in rehearsals for the new Broadway musical Mrs. Doubtfire, but the pandemic closed down theater for 18 months. The show eventually opened in late 2021, but ended its run several months later.
Kinky Boots and Some Like it Hot aren’t the only boundaries Ghee has broken through.
In 2021 at the Muni in St. Louis, Ghee gave new meaning to the phrase “and all that jazz” when they starred as Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago. Ghee did not play the character as a drag artist but rather as a nonbinary human, a first for a production of that show.
“I’m not going to pretend she’s a cis gender woman,” they said. “This is a nonbinary female. Everyone was aware and understood it,and it adds another layer of interest even though it’s not written [explicitly in the script.]”
Some Like It Hot—where he stars opposite Broadway veteran Christian Borle—has redefined the guys-in-dresses comedy as something much more, showing that embracing Jerry’s feminine side is what makes him perfect, taking a twist on the film’s famous last line. The performance is likely to earn Ghee at least a Tony Award nomination.
Amid all the praise, attention and buzz, Ghee, who is single, is “just focusing on myself and my life. I haven’t met someone who has moved me in that way. But I long for that. I hope for that.”
In the meantime, Ghee says he is grateful for the humans around him during this Broadway experience. “And we talk about real things. Not just surface stuff, like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. how was your day?’ They’re to the heart of the matter, conversation where you’re unpacking, unearthing and asking hard-hitting questions.
“I don’t like labels and limits at all. I just want to be human, existing in this world and to be an artist doing what I do. You know, if you allow life and circumstances to stretch you, you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find, if you just free yourself to just be.”