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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.1 (2000) 29-60

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Where Are We Now?
Queer World Making and Cabaret Performance

Shane Vogel *


Every Thursday night the second floor of Flamingo East, a trendy nightclub in New York's East Village, is converted into a cabaret space for Kiki and Herb: Where Are We Now? a drag cabaret act conceived and performed by Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman. 1 The performance ostensibly marks the latest comeback (in a lengthy career of comebacks) of the aging cabaret stars Kiki and Herb. As embodied by the youthful Bond, Kiki's face and body tell her devastating history. At sixty-eight, she is a woman in denial of her lost youth, struggling to regain a former beauty. The tendons in her neck are stretched and strained; her whole body, even her hair, is tense. Every wrinkle around her mouth and eyes is a deep furrow. Directly beneath each eye a single sequin reflects the light, creating the unsettling effect of a permanent tear. Sloshing the drink clutched to her sagging breasts, Kiki stumbles around the room. Her three-inch heels are difficult to manage after a few drinks, and by the end of the night she is walking on her ankles. A large blossom crowns this image, an orchid set in her disheveled hair. Her voice is shattered and epic. Kiki is a variation on the drag queen theme of the vitriolic, alcoholic, failed star who is both captivating and horrifying, but she raises this camp fixture to a new register. Bond and Mellman relate Kiki's failures and her acts of survival with a humor and an irony that comment on the character and her life, as well as on the audience's relationship to her, without turning her into a joke to be laughed at--at least, not from any "safe" distance.

After a nearly two-hour set Kiki returns from intermission for the second act. It's now almost midnight; some of the audience has left, but more of it remains. Kiki makes her entrance singing, microphone in one hand, Canadian Club and ginger ale in the other. This is Kiki's signature drink; as she empties each one, she calls to the bartender for another "CC for Kiki." The CC and ginger is not a prop but an actual alcoholic beverage--Bond imbibes many, many of them during a performance. Kiki and much of the audience get progressively intoxicated as the show goes on. [End Page 29]

Bond, a skilled wordsmith, pairs together popular songs that resonate thematically, musically, or lyrically--often on the basis of a single word--to recontextualize both selections and to inscribe on the medley Kiki's own multiple meanings, which render the songs at once familiar and strange. 2 Returning, Kiki greets various spectators as she navigates through the small tables and chairs in the crowded cabaret. She is singing Geraldine Fibbers's "Seven or in Ten," a song about retribution. Brandishing the microphone like a bludgeon, she feigns beating a patron. Then she grabs another by her shirt: "You think you're so tough, let's play rough, / I'd rather die than let you rule my life." Kiki pulls the patron close, screaming in her face, "Not so fast, fucker!" Shoving her away again, Kiki takes a step back and, with calm, deliberate menace, sings the chorus: "You should have killed me when you had the chance!" The song is addressed to the audience, a warning that things may get out of control as the show proceeds. This is Kiki's nightmare register, where she herself is most comfortable and where she is most familiar, if discomforting, to her fans. It is in the oscillation between entertainment and discomfort that Kiki resides, provoking (sometimes literally) identification on the part of her audience yet distancing herself from them. Multiple modes of feeling, affect, and interpretation occur simultaneously, for both performer and spectator. These ambivalences govern the performance, offering a resource of irony and recognition...