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Drag and piano duo "reignite" for cathartic Christmas

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Justin Vivian Bond as Kiki (r) and Kenny Mellman as Herb — Photo by Eric McNatt
Justin Vivian Bond as Kiki (r) and Kenny Mellman as Herb — Photo by Eric McNatt

Kiki and Herb, the fiery performer duo founded during the early protests of the AIDS crisis, have returned for another musical Christmas tour along the West Coast this year.

They already visited the Moore Theater in Seattle on Thursday. On Friday, December 9, they'll be in San Francisco, and on the evening of December 11, they'll be in Los Angeles.

Kiki DuRane and Herb are portrayed by Justin Bond (they/she) and Kenny Mellman (he/him), respectively, who spoke over Zoom from their rehearsal studio in New York.

"At that time, it was very immediate, because we were coming directly from street actions to performances, and people were dropping dead all around us," said Bond of the act's beginnings. "And we were there to help people laugh at all the corpses."

To younger Queer people, that might seem callous and macabre, but for context, this was in 1989, when AIDS had already claimed the lives of over 40,000 people. It was the year of the famous protest at Manhattan's St. Patrick's Cathedral, where Gay activist Michael Petrelis and demonstrators crashed a Catholic mass to literally blow the whistle on the church's condemnation of Gay people.

At least two years prior to that, protestors had begun blocking roads, locking themselves to the desks of politicians, and turning over cocktail tables at the meetings of pharmaceutical companies.

Even today, though, "people are being killed all around us," Bond said, "and it's really sad how little things have changed."

For example, as of this year, over one million people have died in the US due to complications caused by COVID-19, and, as with most public health crises, vulnerable groups have suffered worse than the general population.

And that's without going into the Supreme Court's rollbacks of progressive rulings, and the wave of anti-Trans legislation in Republican-led states.

Photo by Eric McNatt  

Renewed relevance
"It almost tickles me that Kiki and Herb is still a relevant way to deal with things," Mellman said, "because I hoped, when I was in my twenties, that there would come a time when it would seem passé and a little aggressive."

"And in fact, I felt like it did for a while, and that's why we stopped performing," Bond added.

There was a period of eight years, between 2008 and 2016, when Kiki and Herb were thought to be dissolved. In truth, they were only dormant.

They made their names with performances fueled by the rage of prevailing injustices, first during the AIDS crisis, and then during a string of administrations whose records on LGBTQ issues ranged from conservative to mixed at best. They were nominated for a Tony Award in 2007.

The Obama administration, starting in 2009, oversaw big steps for LGBTQ rights. It seemed to many Queer people, for that period, that the country was going in the right direction.

Sentiments changed when Trump was elected in 2016, and at that point, Bond and Mellman felt it was time for the aging lounge singer and her loyal pianist to emerge once again.

"Give me a pandemic and I've got a raison d'être," Bond said. "Give me a mass shooting, and I'm out there with my birdseed titties."

As for the act itself, it features a mix of monologues and musical numbers by the characters Kiki DuRane, an aging, alcoholic lounge singer, and her pianist, known only as Herb. They perform songs from Broadway musicals, Nirvana, Britney Spears, and everything in between — whatever "feels right in the moment," Bond said.

When asked about how the show specifically addresses the issues of the day, Bond replied, "We just get drunk and mouth off."

On some outlets calling it "cathartic," Bond agreed: "Yeah. For us."

"Maybe not so much for the audience," Mellman added.

Photo by Eric McNatt  

Cathartic or not, the show's lore has deepened over time. Unlike many fictional characters, who age only when the plot demands it, Kiki and Herb have grown older each year.

"When we first started doing it, Kiki was 66 years old, because she was born in 1930, and I was in my twenties, so obviously I thought 66 was really fucking old," Bond said. "But now Kiki's 92, which is not that hard to believe, because there are some really amazing cabaret performers, like Marilyn Maye, who are still performing."

Marilyn Maye is currently 94 years old, but she wasn't the main inspiration for Bond's character of Kiki. Along with performance artists like John Kelly and musicians like Ann Magnuson of the psychedelic rock band Bongwater, Bond said, "I was inspired by my friend's mother... a very intimidating woman, very intelligent — who was dying of cancer when I met her, and had been a burlesque dancer in Baltimore in the 1950s.

"She was just one of those people that, when she looks at you, you feel like she can see everything. And so when I was young, I wasn't sure she saw much, and I was embarrassed by that."

Mellman cited all the same inspirations, but "definitely Diamanda [Galás], and definitely John Kelly, because I played one of his shows before I really knew who he was, in San Francisco."

As a final message before their tour, Mellman dropped any self-deprecation to say of Kiki and Herb: "Besides everything we've said, it's actually entertaining. It's light entertainment for the Christmas season."

"I'm dedicating the show to my friend Bellial [Darshan], who used to write for the SGN," Bond added. "He died in May of 2020. The pandemic didn't treat him well."

You can get updates on Kiki and Herb shows on Facebook and Twitter @kikiandherb, and listen to their work on Spotify and Bandcamp.