The contemporary theatrical play Women of Zalongo is a work of historical fiction inspired by actual events drawn from the history of Modern Greece; it brings to light family secrets and trauma –but also courage– passed down to four generations of women. Through their parallel stories, the playwright, Maria Cominis-Glaudini, narrates the ongoing struggle of women for autonomy.
Maria Cominis-Glaudini is first generation Greek American and lives, works and creates in California; she is an accomplished actor in both theatre and television and also a published author and playwright. She spent a decade in New York City as a working actor and teaching artist at the renowned HB Studio. Her television credits include Hacks, New Girl and Desperate Housewives. She is a Professor at CSUF and teaches acting and directs in the BFA Program.
Her play was inspired by the memoirs of the playwright’s Greek grandmother, Helen Raftis Donlou, who experienced the atrocities of the First Balkan War (1912-1915) as a child, before immigrating to the USA in 1915. It is the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Grants for Arts Projects Award (2022) for production in 2023 in Orange County and in Los Angeles; it also placed as a semi-finalist in both the Eugene O’Neil National Playwrights Conference (2022) and Bay Area Playwright’s festival (2020).
Women of Zalongo
In the play, a modern-day Greek-American woman, Angie, is confronted with her own demons as she unearths the history of her family, tracing its line back to the heroic people of Souli in Epirus. When the Souliotes had rebelled against the Ottoman rule in 1803, a large group of women, surrounded by the invading Ottoman troops who crushed the revolt, jumped from the steep cliffs of Zalongo together with their children, rather than submit to slavery and abuse. The event, commemorated as the "Dance of Zalongo", remains a symbol of unyielding defiance for the Greek people – it also gives strength and motivation to Angie and the women of her family as they face their own ordeals.
Women of Zalongo, directed by Kari Hayter, premiered regionally on March 3-12 at James D. Young Theater at CSUF (California State University, Fullerton) and on March 18-19 at the Santa Monica Playhouse. Its production was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and by the Basil P. Caloyeras Center for Modern Greek Studies at Loyola Marymount University and was presented under the auspices of the General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad and Public Diplomacy of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Embassy of Greece in Washington, D.C., and the Consulate General of Greece in Los Angeles.
The program of the CSUF performances, which also includes the greeting message of the Secretary General for Greeks Abroad and Public Diplomacy, Prof. John Chrysoulakis, is available here. The play was well-received and most of the performances were sold out. On June 5-11, Maria Cominis will present Women of Zalongo in New York, as part of the Herbert Berghof (HB) Studio Rehearsal Space Residencies for 2023.
On this occasion, Greek news Agenda spoke* with Maria Cominis-Glaudini about the role that her Greek heritage has played in forming her identity, but also about the timeless issues her play touches on.
Amanda Zarr, Daria Good (on floor) and Marjorie Gaines (Photo ©MGush)
How much would you say that your Greek heritage has defined you?
I feel deeply connected to my Greek heritage. It has certainly defined the stories I want to tell. I am first generation Greek American. My Dad was from Greece and came to the states as an adult. My Mom’s parents were from Greece and Turkey. Our family held on to the Greek traditions and the close family ties in the early days of my childhood. I treasure those memories. My father taught Greek language lessons at the Greek church, but he did not teach me to speak Greek, which I regret. He died when I was in college, and I never got his story. Now an adult, I find myself seeking out my Greek heritage (the language, the stories, the recipes) and find comfort in the traditions which connect me to those who have passed on. Now, I pass on these traditions to my son who was the sound designer of the play and very much a supporter of the project from the beginning.
Grace Gremel, Christina Carlisi, Hannah Sulak (Photo ©MGush)
To what extent was your play inspired by true stories from your own family’s history?
The characters are inspired by my Yiayia’s writing and her reflections about her childhood prior to her emigration in 1915. Her writing is general, not specific. She spoke of the atrocities and fear for her life. She wrote, "The war drums beat nightly." She never specified what the atrocities were. One of the lines towards the end of the play is hers. "There will always be forces which seek to destroy the fundamentals of our freedom," which resonated deeply with me and can be true for every era in every nation. The dramatic events within the play are not true family stories but imagined, created, and structured for the dramatic arc. These events were inspired by my research.
This is a historical fiction inspired by traditions, and shared experiences. There is a moment when the matriarch sees something ominous in the Greek coffee cup and she says, "That’s it, put the cups away." The Greeks in the audience laugh. They get it.
Does the historical background play an important part, or do you place more emphasis on timeless issues, with which any person experiencing oppression and abuse could relate?
I think the historical framework gives perspective. I learned about the Souliotises a decade ago, dancing at a Greek Festival. When I began to read my Yiayia Eleni’s writings about a year later, I realized her story, over a hundred years later were the same oppressors, which led me to research the history. Currently, women are dealing with losing their autonomy, and continue to fight for their freedom all over the world. I saw a relationship to history and choice, globally. I think the historical background gives the audience perspective on where we were, where we are, and where we might be going. For each audience member it will be a different experience because we experience stories from our own perspective.
Left: Amanda Zarr, Marjorie Gaines, Christina Carlisi (back); right: Marjorie Gaines, Amanda Zarr and Daria Good (Photo ©MGush)
Have you been influenced by the contemporary perspectives on intersectionality – given that you speak about the experiences and trauma of people belonging to various oppressed and marginalized groups (women, immigrants, ethnic minorities etc.)?
I suppose. I think it is important. The company was diverse and we wanted to be inclusive of everyone’s personal journey. The play is multi-generational too, so we are dealing with many perspectives. The director, Kari Hayter, supported giving the actor’s the agency to make choices that supported their well-being, while at the same time serving the story. The actors agreed that their role’s requirements were within their personal boundaries before accepting the role. The direction is also stylized. The assault/violent moments are accompanied by music and created with dance, which distances the audience from the literal implications which helped to not perpetuate unnecessary tropes.
In Greek tradition, the women of Zalongo are commemorated primarily as a landmark of heroism, self-sacrifice and patriotic zeal; however, in your play, they function more as an early symbol for the fight for women’s rights – an original approach to the subject.
Yes. I heard the Zalongo story as an act of resistance. A defiant, brave act of courage. A definitive "NO". Having faith in the afterlife, the Souli’s were determined to live life on their terms. The "cliff", in my play is the metaphorical risk women take every day to stand up for injustice, for choice, for equality. Women today are facing similar life or death issues all over the world. I believe we are standing amidst heroes daily; we just may not know it.
What are you plans for the future?
I am delighted the play has resonated with so many people of all ages, races, cultures, and identities. The next step is to see how New York City responds to the play. The play has been invited to the HB Rehearsal Space Residency for a week of development and presentations. HB Playwright’s a part of the acting studio of Uta Hagen, my late acting teacher. HB was my artistic home for ten years. New Yorkers can be a tough audience, but the environment we are working in is supportive and will provide constructive feedback. I am very much looking forward to this.
The production has been built to tour. This National Endowment of the Arts project has played in two different theatres in California. It can be easily packed up and put in a van. We would love to take the play to Greek communities around the USA and Greece if we can find the funding. Or maybe even collaborate with a theatre company and cast both Greek actors (Old world characters) and Greek American actors (Present world characters).
The play has sparked a lot of conversation. The audiences who attended would linger in the lobby afterwards and wanted to discuss the play. To me this is what theatre is all about.
*Interview by Nefeli Mosaidi. Photos courtesy of Maria Cominis-Glaudini (Intro photo: Kaliana Caldwell, Grace Gremel ©MGush)
Read also via Greek News Agenda: "Polymnia": A chamber opera on the Asia Minor Greek experience; "Makriyannis Unplugged": a modern retelling of the hero’s memoirs by Yorgos Karamihos; "FILIKI ETERIA: The Brotherhood behind the Revolution" in New York