With her stoic beauty, her uni-brow and her dark hair braided with flowers, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has an iconic face. Kahlo died in the 1950s, but she continues to fascinate people world-wide — including this spring in Kansas City.
"She's unapologetic. She's angry and she's hurt and she's putting it in this portrait. I like that honesty and that rawness," says actor and writer Vanessa Severo, who stars in a play about Kahlo at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
Before her death in 1954 at age 47, Kahlo produced about 200 paintings, drawings and sketches; 55 of her paintings were self-portraits.
"Frida-mania remains and I don't think it will ever cease," says Stephanie Fox Knappe, curator of American Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Knappe curated 2013's "Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Masterpieces of Modern Mexico," which focused on the relationship between Kahlo and her husband, muralist and painter Diego Rivera.
It's a coincidence of Frida-mania that while Severo's "Frida ... A Self-Portrait" is on stage at the Kansas City Rep's Copaken Stage, the lush traveling exhibition "Frida Kahlo's Garden" is installed in the atrium at Powell Gardens.
For Kahlo, her garden served as a source of inspiration and as a refuge.
"At the same time she collected plants and books about them, she also celebrated them in her profoundly personal art," Knappe told a group of visitors during a Powell Gardens talk. "Plants played a role in how the artist presented herself to the world, like the flowers which she frequently adorned her hair."
Knappe says Kahlo had a "fascination and really passion for all things that are growing and green and produced fruit."
Severo started researching Frida Kahlo for a possible theater work about six years ago, at the suggestion of her friend Alex Espy, an actor and education director at Mesner Puppet Theater. "Frida ... A Self-Portrait" began as a solo show at The Living Room in 2014.
"I would like the audience to be surprised to find all the similarities that they also find with Frida," Severo says, "with somebody who has lived this life, this difficult life, rose above, and has become kind of an icon."
Kahlo had polio as a child, which left her with a limp. A tram accident in her teens crushed her pelvis, and she spent about a year in bed recovering. Kahlo lived with constant pain and became addicted to morphine. And her relationship with Rivera was turbulent.
"I decided to take the vignettes of those tragedies from age six to 47, and found six chapters in there that I liked to touch on to show how she rose about those tragedies and moved forward," Severo says.
In 2017, Severo and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre received a Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship. This gave her support to refine the production and expand it for KC Rep's Origin KC: New Works Festival.
That included perfecting her Spanish accent. Severo's parents were born in Brazil, and they spoke both Portuguese and English to her as she was growing up.
The fellowship funded travel to Mexico City to visit La Casa Azul and to talk to local residents about Kahlo. Severo also viewed back-to-back solo shows at a festival in New York City and traveled to Canada to study the rigorous and physical Suzuki Method of actor training.
"I wanted to do a movement piece that I had never done, because I took dance all my life," Severo says. "So it was always, like, pretty: pretty arms and pointed feet. And then this method is really strict and grounded and flat foot and straight spine."
There's music and dance in the production, especially when something becomes too difficult for Kahlo (as played by Severo) to talk about. But there's still no shying away.
"She wants you to not look away and to see her. And I feel like as actors we do that. We look directly at you and we don't know want you to look away," Severo says.
"And that's why there's no intermission," she adds with a laugh.
"You know, she had an incredible sense of humor and a great wit," Knappe says. "And even though she was dealing with so much, she always persevered. And I think that is something that we definitely sense as a theme today. How women are stronger than they may believe and can go off and do incredible things."
'Frida Kahlo's Garden,' through May 25, Powell Gardens, 1609 N.W. U.S. Highway 50, Kingsville, Missouri, 816-697-2600.
'Frida ... A Self-Portrait,' through May 19, OriginKC: New Works Festival, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Copaken Stage, 1 H&R Block Way (13th and Walnut), Kansas City, Missouri, 816-235-2700.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.