Much like Vincent Van Gogh, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo wasn’t famous in her own lifetime. A new play at The Living Room examines the artist's trials and tribulations, especially a series of tragic events that would have daunted many people but actually motivated her to paint in the first place.
Kahlo had a look as distinctive as her art. In a series of self-portraits, she emits a piercing stare from beneath an arched unibrow and a crown of braids. And her work has found the acclaim that eluded her in life.
Last summer, more than 52,000 people visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art for an exhibition featuring her work, and that of her husband, artist Diego Rivera. Visitors had the chance to interact with Kahlo in the form of Kansas City actor Vanessa Severo.
"I dressed up as her and stood and posed for pictures and then I went through the gallery about three times," Severo says. "I didn’t speak the whole time I was there, wandering about the Nelson. But people had so much reverence when they would come up and ask to take my picture and that’s what’s stuck with me more than anything – it was almost like a sacred thing to come up and take her picture."
That experience has helped shape Severo's original theater piece called Frida…A Self Portrait, opening this week at The Living Room. A friend of Severo's suggested that she take on the role of Kahlo a few years ago, and the idea stuck. She picked up the mantle and began intensively researching the artist.
"I didn’t know that much about her," Severo admits. "The woman has gone through an enormous amount of tragedy and always rose above. And I feel like historically, people look back on her and see her as one of the strongest female artists that we’ve ever had.
"She was in love/obsessed with Diego Rivera and she took a backseat her entire life and wanted it to be about his art, and his murals, and his causes. And the most money she ever got for any painting was a thousand dollars."
To direct the play, Severo enlisted actor Katie Kalahurka, who admits she undertook a crash course on the artist to help Severo realize her vision.
"The more and more I heard, the more and more I went, ‘That is you, Vanessa.' And this is what it’s been about for me," Kalahurka says. "It’s about really displaying the truth and the beauty of finding the strength in your weakness and the transformative power in that."
The arc of the show covers five life-altering events in Kahlo's life, including a debilitating bus and tram collision that broke her spinal column. She began to paint many of her self-portraits during her long convalescence, as described in a segment from the show.
"There is an art to being alone. There is an art to it. And in my loneliness I found art," reads Severo as Kahlo. "I painted the subject I knew best: myself. And in those moments of solitude, I painted. I painted myself flying. I painted myself bathing. I painted myself fearless. I painted my pain. I did not paint fantasy, I paint my own reality."
Kalahurka says she believes Severo has turned a series of tragedies into something truthful and artful.
"It does sound dark," she says. "However, rest assured, there is music in it. There is dancing. There is movement. It’s visually stunning and the transformations between these five different episodes are amazing to watch. So although it sounds so heavy and dramatic, as her life was, it’s very uplifting. It’s very hopeful. And it’s very beautiful to watch."
Frida Kahlo's journals were also tapped for the script and the essence of the show is perhaps captured by her quote, "I think that little by little, I'll be able to solve my problems and survive."
'Frida...A Self-Portrait,' May 8 - 18, The Living Room, 1818 McGee, Kansas City, Mo., 816-533-5857.