frida…a self portrait @ geva theatre, 4 November 2023.
Everything is all and one, anguish and pain, pleasure and death are no more than a process of existence. The revolutionary struggle in this process is a doorway open to intelligence.
— Frida Kahlo
Vanessa Severo’s one-woman show puts Friday Kahlo’s chronic pain at the center of the artist’s story. For Severo, who both wrote the play and performs it, the lifelong searing physical torment Kahlo suffered after surviving polio as a child and a terrible bus accident as a young woman defined her paintings, personality, and identity. Pain made Frida who she was, hence the title of Severo’s piece, …A Self Portrait.
The title of the play has a double meaning, however. Severo breaks out of character to explain to the audience her own story and how she came to understand Kahlo. It turns out there is more than one self portrait being painted here. The key notion from Kahlo for Severo has to do with feeling abnormal. A Kahlo quote both starts and ends the play:
I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.
The linkage of feeling “bizarre and flawed” becomes, for Severo, a way in to considering Kahlo, and herself, within efforts to expand the range of who counts as normal and able-bodied. Maybe the strange ones are in fact the most special and gifted. Just as Kahlo refused to let her physical pain define her as a person or a painter, Severo explains that she has not let a supposed disability (the fingers on one of her hands are not fully formed) stand in the way of excelling at sports, playing instruments, and whatever she has been interested in doing.
The focus on pain in Frida…A Self Portrait thus also, fascinatingly, brings out the presence of strength. Severo is a powerful performer, unafraid to flex her physical prowess on stage. She has a background in choreography and dance and at one point uses tremendous core strength to dramatize Kahlo’s pained situations, such as the strapped corset Kahlo needed to wear after spinal surgery (also referring to her childhood polio as well) as well as moments of emotional pain. One got to wondering: does pain require strength to be dramatized? Does strength, conversely, always involve some lurking, underlying quality of pain? What is the relationship between the realities of physical pain and its theatrical expression? How do we perform pain, or does it perform us? What is this anti-life force as it quickens, slowing the activity of the self yet also, strangely, powering it?
Severo’s creation is, after all, a one-woman show, which by definition requires a display of sheer endurance to deliver. And while the narrative of the play is fairly standard—flashbacks emerge during an interview with an architecture critic who has come to Kahlo’s famous Casa Azul in Mexico City—the play itself swerves in and out of the present as if to evoke the dizzying disorientation pain, and efforts to control it, produce. Severo moves in and out of various characters, shifting and dancing among two rows of costumes that hang from clotheslines behind her to retell the story of Kahlo’s life. We see dresses, some of Kahlo’s own iconic outfits, and the very recognizable wide suit of her lover and comrade Diego Rivera. Severo occupies Kahlo occupying many of these roles, but by the end of the performance, at last the artist is on stage alone by herself, with no more costumes or props or anything else but for herself and her pain. All has been stripped away—the art, Frida’s political investments, any social relationships, lovers, or family. We arrive at a person, solitary, in terrible, aching, paralyzing, and awful physical discomfort.
Pain is the defining modality of the play, at once bringing a clarity to the investigation in this self portrait. But also, at times, this intense focus on pain alone risks reducing the richness of Kahlo’s social and political commitments in the name of emphasizing her aloneness and her suffering. For instance, Severo portrays Kahlo in enormous pain when she discovers that her lover and husband Diego Rivera was lovers with her sister. Yet the emphasis on betrayal misses the depths of connection between the two artists. Both had many affairs, both came back to each other, and throughout all of it, both shared, in particular, a radical socialist political commitment that is perhaps the one key aspect of Kahlo’s life missing in the play’s portrayal.
The effectiveness of the play’s emphasis on pain is most on display when Severo interrupts the narrative repeatedly to strike poses of Kahlo in screaming silently, in agony, with relief only coming from self-administered shots of morphine. The repetition of this moment throughout the performance might begin to seem redundant—by the fourth time, one thinks ok, we get it, she is in enormous pain. Yet perhaps the repetition is the point. One thought of Elaine Scarry’s well-known philosophical reflections on the silent scream and the “body in pain”: “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.” Here is where, in Severo’s dramatization, Frida Kahlo’s voice took shape: in this shocking silence, this prelinguistic sense of the self disintegrating and compensating back into personhood. On stage, Frida comes apart and puts herself back together over and over.
One cannot escape physical pain, and Frida Kahlo, a remarkable person of enormous will and strength, could not escape it either. There is no way for anyone to outthink pain, out-feel it, or outsmart it. It smarts. Pain is all-encompassing. Pain is no weak medicine. When one is in pain, the pain takes over. One is the pain. The pain is one. None of us, as mortal beings, can turn away from the unrelenting truth of pain experienced. The great accomplishment of Severo’s creation is that in its strong, solo approach to telling Frida Kahlo’s story, the playwright and actress insists we neither romanticize pain nor ignore it, but instead recognize its force. Triumph over pain is not the point here; acknowledging it is. Then carrying on the imperfect effort of repair, which produces surreal beauty, fierce communication, potent visions, a steady gaze staring right at you, a voice speaking to you even after the mouth that spoke it is gone: something strangely solid from a body of work.