When Bellarmine University theater professor and playwright Carlos Chavarria decided to write a play about Frida Kahlo, he immersed himself in the celebrated surrealist painter’s life and work.
“I submerged myself for a year and a half in Frida, Frida, Frida,” says Chavarria, who heads up Bellarmine’s theater program. “My life has been Frida ever since.”
But this play has been a lifetime in the making—Chavarria says he’s been fascinated with Kahlo (1907-1954) as long as he can remember. His house is full of Kahlo prints, skeletons and books on the artist’s work and life.
“For me as a Mexican, Frida Kahlo has been an icon since I was a little kid. She’s been in my subconscious all the time, whether I knew about painting or not, whether I was an artist or not,” says Chavarria, whose mother hails from the Mexican state of Michoacan, where Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead holiday with which Kahlo is closely associated, is a major part of the culture.
“As I grew up and learned about art, she became the painter. We became artists together,” he adds.
“Frida Kahlo: a Portrait” opens Friday and runs through November 17 in Bellarmine’s Wyatt Hall.
Chavarria, who writes and publishes as Carlos Manuel, wanted to direct a play on campus with a multicultural focus, but when he first looked for existing plays about Kahlo, he found himself disappointed. He says existing biographical works about the artist, including the 2002 film starring Salma Hayek, focus too much on Kahlo’s stormy marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera and not enough on her own history and accomplishments.
“It seems to me that every time I hear about Frida Kahlo it has to be attached to Diego Rivera. Everything that Frida Kahlo has done is because Diego Rivera,” says Chavarria. “Can this woman live by her own name and her own art without Diego Rivera? Granted, she was married to him. But she doesn’t exist because of him.”
Chavarria’s play, “Frida Kahlo: a Portrait,” takes a different approach. With the encouragement and support of the university administration and his colleagues, Chavarria set out for Mexico City on a research trip, visiting Kahlo’s home, La Casa Azul, now a museum, and interviewing Kahlo experts to prepare to write a historically accurate overview of the artist’s life.
“I’m going to write a play for people who don’t know who this woman is, so when they come to the theater they get to learn about her, her paintings, her history, the people she met,” says Chavarria. “There’s a lot about the many love affairs she has. There’s a lot about her lesbianism. But it’s about her. She stands by herself. She’s her own person.”
Writing a faithful account of an historical figure’s life presents its own complications. On one hand, private conversations often aren’t recorded, so even events that actually happened need a playwright’s imagination to come to life. On the other hand, Chavarria has a responsibility to history, and fiction can’t get in the way.
“I can’t make things up. I can’t suddenly say ‘she walks in with her child,’ well no, I’m sorry, that was part of her life, she never had children, unfortunately she had a lot of miscarriages,” he says. “So it’s restrictive in the sense that I have to keep myself true to the story of Frida Kahlo. My job as an artist is to portray the life of this woman, but I’m not going to make it up. I have to base it on her life.”
Other departments on campus got involved, too—a music technology student composed an original score, and the art department helped create theatrical-sized versions of Kahlo’s paintings. The Global Languages department and Office of Multicultural Affairs also threw their support behind the production, which Chavarria says has been a learning experience for his students.
“We don’t have Latino actors. So when I knew I was going to write a play I knew I had to write a play for Anglo-American actors, non-Latino actors,” he says.
So play rehearsals begin with pronunciation warm-ups for the sprinkling of Spanish words in the script, and Chavarria explains to his cast why they needn’t attempt to deliver their English lines in Mexican accents to achieve an authentic performance.
“The way you have to look at it is this way: all of you are speaking Spanish all the time. The magic of theater is making all of us understand you,” he says, using the BBC television show “Doctor Who” as an example. “You know how the Tardis is able to translate any alien language, and we hear them in English? That’s the same thing for the play.”
Authenticity was a concern for Chavarria when it came to the production’s costumes and props, too. He sourced most straight from Mexico, dispatching friends in California and Arizona to border towns to collect what he couldn’t find on his last trip. Kahlo’s mother hailed from Oaxaca, where indigenous cultures still flourish, and Chavarria wanted the most authentic regional costumes for his Frida and her friends and family.
“Don’t go to the shoe store,” he told his friends. “Go to the markets where the Indians are selling their handmade shoes.”
Handmade shoes and blouses were easy. Finding the right kind of papier mache skeleton in Mexico in June—five months before the Day of the Dead—proved to be a challenge. Chavarria looked in several states, finally receiving a phone call days before he headed home. He bought the life-sized figure on the spot and had her shipped to campus, and she appears on stage throughout the play.
“Everyone calls her Carlotta, the female of Carlos,” he says with a laugh. “We don’t even look alike.”