In 1983, the writer Hayden Herrera published a biography of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The book brought Kahlo out from the shadows of her larger-than-life husband, artist Diego Rivera.
The book also established Kahlo as a huge talent in her own right, and she was transformed into a feminist icon, spawning a cottage industry of books, documentaries, a feature film — and t-shirts and tchotchkes of all sorts that bear her image.
There also have been several stage productions about Kahlo, but the singer/songwriter Perla Batalla and playwright Oliver Mayer — both of whom live and work in Southern California — believe there is more to say about the artist, who died in 1954 at the age of 47.
Batalla and Mayer are collaborating on a play with music called “Blue House” — that’s a reference to Casa Azul — the Mexico City house where Kahlo was born and died, and in-between lived with Rivera.
The project has its roots in a 2012 exhibition of surrealist art by Mexican women at the L.A. County Museum of Art. For a performance accompanying the show, Batalla was among the musicians who were invited to select an artist from the exhibit and write a song inspired by her work. Batalla and Mayer spoke with The Frame's senior producer, Oscar Garza.
Given her prominence in pop culture, why did you end up choosing Frida as your subject?
Batalla: We were trying to figure out which artist we would choose and Frida was the one I was trying to avoid because I felt like everyone would choose her. But as I learnined more about Frida, it [was] a no-brainer for me. I mean, she's German-Mexican; I'm German-Mexican. Her sense of art is that, as Mexicans, we see the world in a surrealist way. There is no "surrealism," it's just the way we see the world.
So that was the genesis of the play? The commission for one song?
Batalla: Yes. Then David [Batteau] and I started doing research and reading as much as we could and we said, This is not just a song. This is a musical. There's a great story here that needs to be told.
Oliver, were you daunted at all by the fact that this is somebody who's very well known and whose life has been examined thoroughly?
Mayer: Sure, there was hesitation. I figured that they got a lot of that information out there that maybe I could actually skip past. And that I could help Perla find the soul of the woman, in particular, and the man she loved and what it might be like to live in that house. The Casa Azul is a place I've never been to, but I feel like I've been there through the songs. Perla's been there. I've been in homes like that because I've been in homes with people who love each other and maybe have done each other wrong. There's something about the history and the ghosts of a place like that that I felt I could write.
But I'll tell you about this show and particularly this Frida — our Frida. I was very moved by a mashup I saw online — a photographic mashup. It was an image of Frida with the body of [poet-singer] Patti Smith. And it reminded me about her contemporary power, her female power: iconic, in your face, devil-may-care, sexual. Really interesting. And it gave me insight on Frida that I thought, I could do this. I'm hoping to be able to give that to Perla's and David's songs and to an audience so that we see someone who's really current, even possibly in the last days of her life. And even possibly at a moment where most of us wouldn't even be able to speak with the pain that she's feeling that she can still crack wise with a bottle of mezcal and a cigar and a lot of cursing, and really tell the world and tell her husband how she feels.
Perla, you've written the songs with your songwriting partner David Batteau? What was your approach going into the music? How direct did you want to be?
Batalla: Well, there really is no approach to how we do it. It's strictly the research. We start with research, reading everything we can get our hands on. I even started to paint and do art pieces. Through the research, things just pop out at us.
All three of us grew up in Mexican American households. I really had no knowledge of her until the '80s when Hayden Herrera's biography of Kahlo came out.
Batalla: We didn't either.
Then she became this icon of Chicano/Mexican-American culture here that has gone wavered a little bit, but she remains a presence. She's made that foothold here. Is that the same for you? Were you aware of her growing up?
Batalla: I think for Mexican-American women, especially, it was very eye opening to have a figurehead like Frida. All of a sudden, here's an extremely strong woman who does what she wants, says what she wants and paint what she wants. Discovering her was very powerful for me and many of my friends — not just Hispanics, but certainly for our culture, it was extremely important to have her and still is for a lot of women.
Mayer: My father was an artist so I was aware of Rivera at a very early age. I think it's a testament to how we've grown as a people, how we've grown as Americans, but maybe how the entire world's become more aware that it's not always about men. Even in Diego's own household. I think Frida had to remind him of that because he was a gigantic personage and in a lot of ways deserved all the attention he got. But he said something really powerful that I'm always reminded of in the play: he thought that her art was greater than his. And I don't think he said that in a passing way. I think he knew that she was really up to something really important, and not just for women.
This was a difficult and complicated relationship between Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. How much of that did you want to get at in terms of the tension between them? How integral is that to the story?
Mayer: The play that we're working on now has everything to do with that battle and that love story, because I think all of the blows that each of them give in the play, and have given before the play begins, are in that house. That's why I think the title is right. I think it's probably the way a lot of us feel when we go home. We remember all the things that have happened there. Sometimes we can't forget even if we'd like to. But in their case, they were unable to part. Even when they divorced, they got married a second time.
Batalla: I also think that if you just talk about a relationship, having grown up Mexican and German, both of which are kind of strong, scary cultures ... when you get two people that have very strong opinions and have these personalities that cannot be denied, I'm sorry — there are just going to be fireworks. One thing I wanted to really express to Oliver was my need to always have that love there. She wasn't there as some victim. A lot of people [say], Oh, poor Frida. Diego was such an animal. She wanted to be there and she adored that man. I have no doubt in my mind that she adored him.
Maybe that bond in the music is perhaps best expressed in the song, "Tell Me You Don't Love Me Anymore"?
Batalla: Exactly. And "Tell Me You Don't Love Me" isn't like, Boo-hoo — tell me you don't love me so I can go die somewhere. It's, I dare you to tell me that you don't love me.
"The Blue House" will be presented Aug. 11 as a work-in-progress at the Ojai Playwrights Conference.