His Lola adventure

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday April 26, 2016
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J. Harrison Ghee, as drag performer Lola, performs with<br>her backup Angels in a scene from <i>Kinky Boots,</i> making a return visit to San Francisco. Photo: Matthew Murphy
J. Harrison Ghee, as drag performer Lola, performs with
her backup Angels in a scene from Kinky Boots, making a return visit to San Francisco. Photo: Matthew Murphy

He did not create the role of Lola in Kinky Boots, but it sometimes seems like the role was created for him. Of all the actors who have yet played the drag performer who upturns the provincial world he lands in, J. Harrison Ghee has the most autobiographical connection to the role. "I sometimes say Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper must have had someone tracking my life when they wrote the show," said Ghee, who is now starring in the touring production that will return the musical to San Francisco beginning May 11. "The cast always says to me, 'You're a real-life Lola.'"

Ghee grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., the son of a minister who just didn't get his son. "Me, being the bold child and the creative one, I came up questioning things, and he just didn't understand the son he was given," Ghee said from Los Angeles, the tour's prior stop before hitting SF. "He didn't disown me or anything like that, but I've kind of had to always prove myself to him."

J. Harrison Ghee, who stars as Lola in the touring Kinky Boots, has a strong personal connection to the role. Photo: Courtesy Kinky Boots

Ghee's father knew his son would be playing a drag queen in the musical, but Ghee said, "He didn't know I had been doing drag for five years even before doing Lola. Not long before he saw the show, I told him that drag was part of my career, part of my creative expression, and he was very taken aback." As for his mother, while she was the only family member who knew about his work in drag, she told him that she hoped he didn't get cast in Kinky Boots, and that if he did, she wouldn't come to see it. "Then she realized the magnitude of the show, that it was a Tony Award-winning show, and she understood it wasn't just some play-play drag show." His parents did come to see the show, twice, in both Durham and Charlotte.

In the musical, Lola, known as Simon when out of drag persona, is estranged from a father who can't accept the path his son has followed. Efforts at reconciliation come too late, and Lola's signature song, "Not My Father's Son," has particular resonance for Ghee. "Now at every opportunity he tells me that I am my father's son, that I am his son."

Kinky Boots is based on the 2005 movie of the same name, and with songs by Lauper and a book by Fierstein, it opened on Broadway in 2013, where the run continues. The story comes from the actual tale of a struggling shoe factory in England, starting with the son who does not want to go into the family business after his father dies. But Charlie finds a way to turn the business around, and even develops affection for it, after he accidentally meets Lola.

Lola and her backup Angels haven't been able to find high-heel boots to support the weight of a man performing in drag, and with Charlie, they develop a niche line of footwear for a drag clientele that saves the day. But the factory workers aren't too keen on working with a drag queen, and even Charlie displays prejudices after the partnership has begun that need to be reconciled before the final curtain.

"We all struggle, wanting to be accepted and loved for who we are, and at least understood if not respected for our differences," Ghee said. "Audiences really connect with that through Charlie and Lola, as they find that we all need each other."

J. Harrison Ghee created his own drag character named Crystal Demure, who continues to have a following in New York. Photo: Courtesy J. Harrison Ghee

Ghee, who found early work at Disney Tokyo and on cruise ships, was primarily focused on developing showcases for his drag character Crystal Demure in New York when he set out to land a role, any role, in Kinky Boots. At first he was cast as an understudy for Lola in the tour, as well as a swing performer who could fill in for many of the male roles. "There were days when I was Lola for a matinee and a factory worker for the evening show," he said. "Being part of this show is something special in any capacity, and it's being versatile enough to do all of that."

Ghee, now 26, had his first chance to play Lola in 2014 during the musical's first run in San Francisco. "It was definitely exciting, but I was well-prepared for the adventure of being Lola," he said. "I did just get my costumes right before knowing I'd be going on. I'm six-feet-four without heels, so I believe I'm the tallest Lola of them all."

The role officially became his last November, and he's open to renewing his contract when it expires this coming November. Before that, the tour is scheduled to return to his home state of North Carolina in September. While numerous entertainment events have been cancelling engagements there to protest the recently passed anti-LGBT law, Ghee said he has heard nothing about any changes in the tour's schedule.

"We've now been there three times, and we've been received so beautifully that it's hard to believe what's happening in North Carolina right now," Ghee said. "We were in Oklahoma when they were having issues with their legislature. It's amazing that we have these opportunities to take this message across the country and be in such areas at such important times."

Performing in Kinky Boots, and especially playing the role of Lola, is something of a quasi-religious experience for Ghee. "You have to be a willing vessel to share this message," the performer said. "It's not always easy, because you get to be loud and boisterous and over-the-top, but you also have to be quiet and essentially naked in front of everyone in the theater. I don't mind doing that in order to reach at least one person in every audience who needs this message."

 

Kinky Boots will run May 11-22 at the Golden Gate Theatre. Tickets are $45-$212. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to shnsf.com.