He is his father’s son: J. Harrison Ghee finds the love for Lola in Broadway San Jose’s ‘Kinky Boots’

North Carolina native J. Harrison Ghee comes through San Jose as the fabulous drag queen Lola in “Kinky Boots,” playing at the Center for Performing Arts through Sunday, Jan. 29th. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

When he was just a kid, everything he did, was to be like him.

You can make a case that J. Harrison Ghee certainly felt this way as a child. The son of a pastor, a young man raised within the great tradition of Southern black churches, Ghee feared that his secret would lead to a loss of everything he knew – love, acceptance, God. And when it came time for him to come out to his father as a gay man, he braced for the worst, but was blessed with the best.

“It was easier than I expected it to be,” said Ghee. “Everyone has a journey and a story. I definitely expected my father to disown and shun from the world and his life, but instead, he said ‘you’re my son, you’re part of me, you represent me, I love you and I’m not going to disown you.’”

It’s a theme, a moment and a memory that Ghee visits nightly.

That’s because the 27-year-old actor plays a drag queen named Lola in “Kinky Boots,” the Tony winning musical that makes its way to San Jose through Sunday, Jan. 29th. With music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein, both Lola and reluctant shoe factory owner Charlie search deep for their passions, which come in the form of an ordinary shoe factory transformed into the epicenter for women’s shoes tailored for men’s frames.

Lola, among other things, is fierce and fabulous, and looks amazing in a sleek, red dress, stunning hat and heels that can drill through concrete. Lola’s look is straight fire.

Her confidence lives through Ghee, who estimates he was three-years-old when he was leading worship in his Fayetteville, North Carolina church.

“It helped me be the bold person I was meant to be, even in a place that is a little more conservative,” said Ghee. “I was supported by people who love me, and that’s all anyone can really ask for.”

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J. Harrison Ghee (Twitter.com photo via Julian Vankim of Metro Weekly)

The national touring company is approaching their 900th performance of the show, and by his own estimation, he has performed in at least half of those. It’s a role he has owned since November of 2015, which means that he has sung the stunningly melancholy hit “Not My Father’s Son,” in every show, a song that features these lyrics:

“I’m not my father’s son
I’m not the image of what he dreamed of
With the strength of Sparta and the patience of Job,
still couldn’t be the one
to echo what he’d done
and mirror what was not in me.”

In particular, that Sparta and Job line tends to hit Ghee pretty hard.

“My father has a Ph.D. in philosophy and history and is a pastor, and when I sing that song every night, it definitely hits home,” said Ghee. “Now and then, he thinks about me singing that song on the road and he tells me he loves me and I am his son. It changed our relationship and our dynamic.

“He’s an old school kind of guy raised in the country, and he has preconceived notions about a lot of things, but through me, he’s learned a lot.”

In relation to playing Lola, the tall and athletic looking 6’4” Ghee has also had to learn a lot about the logistics of tackling such a physically demanding character in multiple climates, cold fronts and altitudes. He is a tireless performer, a man who plays every performance of every week. Wednesday matinee? He’s Lola. Tuesday evening at 8 pm? Still Lola. While there may be performers that have a stipulation in their contract which limits their number of performances, that is certainly not Ghee. But don’t cry for him – he loves his gig.

“What makes the role so difficult is you have to be committed and full out every night,” said Ghee. “I am able to explore nightly, and I am still finding new things, new tones and new tactics. That’s what I enjoy most about it.

“I’m not tired of it. It’s such a fun life to live on stage every night.”

The wide-ranging variety of what the role offers, from delicious joy and playfulness to searing pain and pathos, is something Ghee revels in. It’s a show that, as he says, “is my therapy and I put my mess into it.” But having the opportunity to play this character often leads to plenty of self-reflection, and a recognition of his good fortune.

“There are days where I will think about my life and where I’ve come from, experiences I’ve had, and on those days it just hits harder than others,” said Ghee. “I have to let those days happen and let myself be vulnerable.”

Despite the fact that North Carolina is not exactly looked at lately as a great protector of LGBTQ rights, Ghee still loves being from a place that has so many great people and characters. He is proud of the fact that both runs of the show in Raleigh and Charlotte only knew him as Lola, in all his vulnerable glory. And with the blessings of his family and his father, that vulnerability makes lyrics like these soar nightly:

“The endless torment of expectations swirling inside my mind,
wore me down
I came to a realization and I finally turned around to see,
that I could just be me.”
 

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Broadway San Jose presents “Kinky Boots”
Music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper
Book by Harvey Fierstein
Through Jan. 29th
San Jose Center for Performing Arts
255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $43 – $153
For tickets and information, call (800) 982-2787 or visit www.broadwaysanjose.com

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