The Tony-winning musical "Kinky Boots" – coming to the Marcus Center starting Tuesday night and running through the weekend – is a bold, bright tale of family, acceptance and fabulousness. For actor J. Harrison Ghee, however, it’s a story that goes beyond just the stage.
Before he steps into the Marcus Center spotlight this week as Lola the stiletto-starved drag star, OnMilwaukee chatted with Ghee about his own real life drag performing days, serving as the touring show’s "drag mom" and how the father-son-centered show helped him bond with his own pastor father.
OnMilwaukee: What drew you to the world of drag?
J. Harrison Ghee: My final semester studying in New York, my acting teacher wanted us to audition a scene that required me to play a female wrestler. And at the time, I was using "RuPaul’s Drag Race" as a character study, and that kind of got the ball rolling with the intrigue of drag.
When did you start performing in drag?
About six years ago. I started exploring it while I was working at Tokyo Disney Resort.
What is it about drag that you like so much?
I enjoy having complete creative control over this character that is mine and also touring the boundary. I am 6’4" out of drag, and you would never think this 6' 4" black man is a beautiful drag queen, but I have fun keeping people on their toes and entertaining and educating through drag.
Had you seen "Kinky Boots" before you were a part of the touring show?
I had, and for years, I was watching YouTube videos of Billy Porter do backstage traffic and anything "Kinky Boots." I’ve kind of been one degree of separation from it for so long; I remember seeing one of the first casting notices for it and thinking, "Oh, that’s interesting; I think I’d like to do that, whatever that’s going to be." I definitely pinch myself now everyday when I take off the finale dress. I used to watch Billy get in this dress and the boots, and now I do it everyday.
During the audition process for "Kinky Boots," was your drag expertise something that came up? Was that something they were looking for this role?
It was definitely brought up. We were asked to come in in full drag for a dance call, and when I showed up, they were very enamored by my costume choice. I wore a red sequin leotard and big blonde Beyonce hair. They asked me, "Where did you get that?" and I was like, "It was literally in my closet."
Are all of the drag queen actors in the show also real life drag queens, or did you kind of have to help them out there?
You know, I was the only professional drag queen, and people had to kind of learn their way. I did have a very interesting part in playing with the current Angels; I was the assistant dance captain, so I got to teach all of them the show and then also teach them drag tips. I kind of act as drag mom on tour. I’m always critiquing their makeup and helping them find new ways to evolve and grow and learn.
What’s the biggest tip or thing people need help with in becoming a true drag performer?
Well, I’m all about confidence and owning your personal character, whoever that is the actors have created for themselves. One of the little things that I always joke about but I kind of take seriously is, even on stage, I’ll catch them sometimes forgetting to wear earrings. And I tell them they are bald-headed if they don’t have their earrings on. You can wear the longest wig, but if you don’t have on earrings, you’re pretty much just a man in a dress. That’s just a little joke between us.
The show has themes about fathers and sons and those relationships, but you had a very similar one with your father, who is a pastor.
Yes, growing up in North Carolina, we have definitely had a journey with our relationship, and this show played an integral part in helping us to grow. He’s seen the show multiple times now, and he makes it a point to tell me every chance he gets that I am his son and that he’s proud of me and he’s happy to see me doing what I love to do and also being able to effect people’s lives across the country.
When did he realize that drag performance was a part of your real life?
He didn’t know until we were well into the tour. He joked one day about me getting paid to imitate drag queens, and he laughed about it. And we laughed about it in the moment, but then later, before he saw the show the first time, I sat him down and expressed to him that it had been a part of my real life. I showed him pictures, and he was taken aback; he said, "Oh, that’s my son? You did that? You own that?" We just had that adult conversation, and he understands that it’s part of my job, not only on stage with "Kinky Boots" but as a part of my life. And he understands me better as his son.
What do you hope people take from this show?
I hope that they understand that the show’s message is about acceptance and love. As individuals, we all want to be accepted for who we are and what makes us unique, and that’s the message that we’re trying to convey. Hopefully people walk away with that and that you really change the world when you change your mind. We’ll make the world a better place when we can just open our minds to things that are different. You don’t have to necessarily understand it, but you just need to respect it.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.