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The Two Fridas: Cara Mía Theatre actors from Pakistan, Mexico on playing Frida Kahlo

Frida Espinosa Muller (left) and Maryam Baig (right).
Ben Torres
Cara Mia Theatre
Frida Espinosa Müller (left) and Maryam Baig (right) will play the Spanish and English-speaking roles of Frida Kahlo in "To DIE: GO in Leaves by Frida Kahlo."

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This month, two actresses will take on the role of Frida Kahlo in Cara Mía Theatre’s production of “To DIE: GO in Leaves by Frida Kahlo.”

Maryam Baig and Frida Espinosa Müller each bring their own take on Kahlo. Baig wrote the original play in 2003 and now almost 20 years later, Müller has rewritten Baig’s original play in Spanish. While the two women were born on opposite ends of the globe, they found commonality in Kahlo.

“She [Frida Kahlo] has a universal appeal and she is so deeply, transparently vulnerable that we all can find a piece of ourselves in her,” Baig said.

Baig, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan and grew up speaking Urdu, will play the English-speaking role of Kahlo. Müller, who was born in Mexico City and grew up speaking Spanish, will play the Spanish-speaking role of Kahlo. Müller and Baig are quick to point out that their dual approach to the role is reminiscent of the popular work “The Two Fridas,” Kahlo’s famous double self-portrait.

Kahlo’s work often explores the idea of navigating different identities as a gender fluid and mixed-race person with disabilities. So, having two women play the role allows Baig and Müller to reflect Kahlo’s multi-dimensionality through their own perspectives and life experiences.

Baig wrote “To DIE: GO in Leaves by Frida Kahlo” for her senior thesis while studying visual arts at UTD. At that point, she knew little about Kahlo’s life. So she dove into Kahlo’s diaries, letters and artwork like “A Few Small Nips,” “Girl with Death Mask”, “What the Water Gave Me” and “Henry Ford Hospital.” Baig said she intentionally shied away from biographies, films or newspaper articles on the acclaimed artist.

“I love biographies, but often biographers will make comments or suppose how something had happened, thus coloring it with their own paintbrush,” she said. “I wanted to know what Frida wrote, what happened to her body and what she painted.”

Maryam Baig performs.
Ben Torres
Cara Mia Theatre
Maryam Baig and other cast members perform a scene that shows the end of Kahlo's life as she shares lessons from her travels and final words.

Initially, Baig created a timeline of the artist’s major life events and transposed her own life map onto Kahlo’s.

“I was trying to feel her in my own body and in my own life and see what I might have done at that age,” she said. It was a way for Baig to “grasp this larger than life icon.”

Müller, who’s been an actress at Cara Mía Theatre since 2005, brings her own sensibility to Baig’s original work. After translating the play, like Baig, Mueller went back to Kahlo’s diaries for inspiration. She ultimately revised the script with fragments from the artist’s diaries and letters.

Both Mueller and Baig noted how moments of their early life connected with Kahlo. When Baig was about six, she got very sick with the mumps, similar to how Frida contracted polio when she was six.

Müller, like the painter, was born and raised in Mexico City and is mestiza with indigenous, Spanish and German roots. One side of her family is from Oaxaca, similar to Kahlo, and she even shares the same first name as the artist. Named after her mother, Müller was used to hearing her father say “I have my two Fridas.”

Through her translation, Müller was able to tap into her own culture as a Mexican woman. She said Kahlo lived during the time after the Mexican revolution when people were getting in touch with their indigenous roots and forming our modern-day understanding of Mexican culture.

With the Spanish performance, we bring the Mexicanidad of who was Frida from the time and places that she lived,” she said. “It is not only Spanish flavor, but the Mexican flavor because we have many different countries, many different cultures that speak Spanish.”

While Müller and Kahlo both speak Spanish, she said there’s a specificity to the way each person talks. That’s why she worked to convey Kahlo’s distinctive voice.

“We hear her own way to put together words and ideas, which I think is very beautiful and very unique,” Müller said.

Frida Espinosa Muller
Ben Torres
Cara Mia Theatre
Frida Espinosa Müller depicts a scene where Kahlo is at the Henry Ford Hospital and her child is floating away after her second spontaneous abortion.

Baig also uses words and imagery to bring her own style to the play. Her writing’s unfiltered openness is an effort to recapture the feeling of being a child.

"I'm hoping deeply that the audience will leave with a sense of adventure and a sense of how they felt when they were seven years old and playing with the kids on the street,” she said.

Baig wants to reflect that youthfulness, but she also has a newfound appreciation for the way aging – and its aches and pains – has helped her understand the health challenges Kahlo faced.

“My own writing is revealing itself to me and I ask myself, ‘What point do I stop talking about [the physical pain and suffering]?” Baig asked. “I can't for now, because my own body affects my art, and I can totally see how it affected hers.

Müller too has come to connect to Kahlo in a different way as she’s gotten older. As an angsty teenager, she remembers connecting with Kahlo’s “The Wounded Deer” which depicts a young deer with Frida’s head that has been wounded by several arrows.

“Now I connect much more with paintings like ‘My Nurse and I’ and ‘The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Señor Xólotl’ because I am more connected in my age with nature and universality,” Müller said.

When Baig first created the play, she said her decisions on how to tell Kahlo’s story were made largely by resource constraints.

With the Internet still in its early stages, Baig turned to books and images at her university library in 2003. She also worked with her former classmate David Lozano, now executive artistic director at Cara Mía Theatre, and his company to adapt the play for the Festival of Independent Theatres with no budget.

Today, Baig is acting in the play with more resources and life experience than she did 20 years ago. Plus, she has another Frida to share the story in Spanish. But her original determination to do more with less mirrors Kahlo’s ability to produce vivid paintings as she faced depression, chronic pain, fatigue and a leg amputation.

Müller said the artist had the “capacity to enjoy life, to find her beautiful imagination, the place to survive, the place to create, the place to endure and somehow transform whatever was happening with her into something beautiful.

Cara Mía Theatre’s production of “To DIE:GO in Leaves” runs from Feb. 18 to March 12.

Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.