It took J. Harrison Ghee several weeks before they could watch their historic moment at the Tony Awards last month. Ghee became the first nonbinary performer to win best leading actor in a musical for playing Jerry/Daphne in Some Like It Hot.
Ghee wanted to let the rest of their cast and creative team celebrate so they could focus on playing the part. “I allowed everyone else to have all the excitement, the energy, the hype, and the joy of it all. I kept my joy and my peace to myself and preserved for the sake of the work that I have to do every night. The work didn’t stop just because the Tony came,” they told Broadway Direct as part of a conversation in honor of International Non-Binary People’s Day on July 14.
“I’m proud of what came out at the moment,” Ghee said, reflecting on winning last month. Ghee said that every day, they glance at their Tony Award that proudly sits on a shelf next to their TV. “You only have 90 seconds from the moment they call your name. There’s so many people you could thank, but sometimes it’s wonderful to keep it short and simple. I had to meet the moment and trust my instincts, then and there. You can never forget the moment you win a Tony Award. But going on stage and seeing that entire theatre of humans on their feet, pouring love on me, was astounding and so affirming of the reason I did the work.”
Since Ghee is nonbinary, they chose to be considered for the competitive male acting category during the award season. “It was intentional” — as was taking on the role of Jerry/Daphne in the musical and “letting this be a mirror for humanity,” they said.
The musical adaptation of the iconic Marilyn Monroe film is similar to it in how the story follows two musicians — disguised as women — who are fleeing the Mob. In this version, with a book by Amber Ruffin and Matthew Lopez, Ghee’s character’s initial disguise as Daphne leads to a revelation of their true identity.
“To authentically portray those who have not been able to be seen or heard, and also open the eyes of so many other people’s understanding, is why I do it,” they said of taking on this part.
And to cap off more excitement to the historic win, the following morning after the Tonys, Ghee and their costars hopped on a plane to the White House for a previously planned Pride event. Ghee had gone to bed around 5 a.m. and woke up three hours later for the whirlwind tour.
Adrenaline can keep anyone awake. “I’m casually walking around the White House with a Tony Award. Who gets to, like, say they won a Tony and the next day we’re at the White House? Like, huh?”
One of Ghee’s favorite moments of their time at the White House was hugging Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who is Black and gay. Another was having a quiet moment to themself looking on at an arch in the basement that hasn’t been painted. “I took quiet moments to acknowledge the fullness of my ancestors who built that place, who put their blood, sweat, and tears into that. I am standing here making history and I am the physical representation beyond their wildest dreams,” they said. “The beauty of this Black queer representation existing in the White House was so special.”
Ghee was supposed to deliver an address in honor of Pride, one that was already written and preapproved by White House staff. Something at the White House came up, so they didn’t get to. So Ghee shared a bit of what they planned to say and what it meant to get to share these words.
“I used to do youth Legislative Assembly in North Carolina, where we would write bills as teenagers and act as the Senate. And some of our bills went on to the actual Senate and became bills in the world. Having that experience pushed me away from being political for a long time, seeing how people…were being groomed for that world of politics. And it just was not appealing to me. Even that full-circle-ness of being able to be in the White House — in my authenticity, making a difference, using my voice — was something I was so excited and humbled by.”
The once-in-a-lifetime experience at the White House confirmed Ghee’s ministry — and all that they have been preaching on stage and off eight shows a week. “It grounded me in my journey that I can make a difference in my own way,” they said humbly. “I can’t turn back. There’s no shying away from the purpose that I intend to live in, to continue to make art to be effective in the world.”
And since the Tonys, they say their win has opened opportunities for others. “I continue to hear stories of people…who now feel they have a reason to go on in life or parents who say they have little trans or nonbinary kids who now have such inspiration to just live a full life,” they said.
Ghee hopes the acknowledgment “cracks open, even just beyond categories, how we view art. I hope that this will push us forward to really continue to tell all kinds of stories and to make space for everyone to expand how we celebrate each other.”
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