It’s 2006. On a tour of the Silk Road, the ancient highway that connects China with points as far west as Rome, the journey is full of Buddhist antiquities, temples and the like.
Under a tent in part of the Gansu province with an ethnic Tibetan majority, yak is served for dinner. There’s music and dancing at a wondrous reception—and Bala Cynwyd’s Lili Bita gratefully responds by introducing her version of Greek tragedy while feted by local dignitaries.
“Like normal, she went from zero to 60,” recalls Bita’s husband, Robert Zaller. “In street clothes, without any preparation, she starts singing Medea, crying and shouting. And suddenly, even the opening of the tent filled with faces of shepherds, peasants and monks.”
Zaller recalls another time, on the island of Paros in the Aegean Sea, when his wife spontaneously rehearsed a monologue while walking along a country road. “[It was] as though she was belting out an aria,” says Zaller.
Peasants and donkeys alike took in this apparently mad woman. “She has a nuclear furnace inside her,” he says.
At the 2001 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe, Bita performed a bilingual version of a revival of Medea. Before the opening performance, she fractured her left kneecap backstage, yet she still dropped to that knee in the ritual-of-birth scene. Cast and all, she completed the run, eliminating that scene. “Talk about the show must go on,” Zaller says.
It has—and will—at Philly Fringe, where she’s been a mainstay for 13 years. Her Sept. 13, 18 and 19 shows at the Rotunda on Walnut Street include a one-act play she’s co-directing with Gerald van Wilgen, and monologues from Lysistrata (with the audience as the chorus), Medea and Electra. She’ll also read a poem from her published 2007 collection Women of Fire and Blood, plus five other “very erotic ones,” concluding with “Credo,” which she’ll dedicate to the audience.
The Medea and Electra monologues will be performed in Greek, but Lysistrata is in English and is a Zaller adaptation. This spring, the couple received a joint honor, the Gemini Award, for collaboration on two of Bita’s poems published in last year’s poetry annual, Philadelphia Poets. Zaller’s translations were printed side by side. “We’re very proud of this because it recognizes our collaboration, and the way our creative lives have been bound up together,” says Bita, who won’t reveal her age. (“No, I’m an actress,” she responds.)
Zaller is a history professor at Drexel University, where he’s working on his 18th book, a critical study of American poet Robinson Jeffers. Meanwhile, his Greek-born spouse’s one-woman shows have brought the legacy of Hellenism to a worldwide audience.
A graduate of both the Greek Conservatory of Music and the Athens School of Drama, Bita holds an M.A. in drama from the University of Miami. She’s published 10 books and chapbooks of poetry, two books of short fiction, a novella, a memoir, two volumes of translation, and several plays. Her work has been translated into English, French, Spanish, German, and Bengali. She also teaches piano lessons at home—and her students perform in the community.
She’s taught or lectured at 50 colleges and universities, including participation this past March in “Women Forward,” a celebration of Women’s History Month at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a 25th anniversary book fair at Miami Dade College, where she read from her 2005 memoir, Sister of Darkness. As for Women of Fire and Blood, it changed the mythology of Greek heroines. Bita wouldn’t accept their mythology or the words they spoke as handed down by Greek men.
“Lili’s work and personality intensify each other,” says Dean Papademetriou, her publisher at Somerset Hall Press. “Like all Greeks, Lili is full of contradictions—only in her case, they’re more extreme. Nevertheless, they make her books and acting complex and fascinating, and ultimately make her more endearing.”
Chronicling everything from her childhood on an idyllic Greek island to her coming of age, to her entrapment and escape from a brutal marriage, Sister of Darkness is the emotional story of one woman’s journey of self-discovery and personal liberation. “Many say it’s changed their lives,” Bita says. “I write with honesty about my life and leaving Greece—a country where men put the rules, and women are supposed to obey, say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and bow their heads.”
The only daughter of an army officer, Bita had to live under two sets of rules—those of her native Zakynthos, an island in the Ionian Sea, and those of her father, Jorgos (George) Bita. Once under Venetian rule for 300 years, Zakynthos has a long musical tradition and produced a national poet, too.
“We were artists, and I liked that, sure—because I’m one,” says Bita.
Her mother was “suffocated” and “left in the shadows,” Bita says. “Her husband was the first and last man in her life. All she knew was what we would eat and when to be at church.”
Bita rebelled. She felt sad for all women. “My mother was talented, but then she married—and it was like she died,” says Bita. “She used to tell me that when there was a man in the house, the devil was behind the door, so she obeyed. Behind closed doors, she hated it.”
Once, her mother told a brother she wanted a divorce. He warned her that no one would come to her aid. “Out of fear, she did not,” Bita says.
Her daughter couldn’t speak up, either. “I did not dare,” she says. “I had to obey the rules—period—or be punished.”
Another time, Bita’s father literally kicked her out of the house. She was 10. “He was the superior—like a king,” Bita remembers. “I started to see that the island would be no good for me. I wanted to be an actress, but everyone thought it was a child’s desire, so they applauded and laughed. I was serious.”
Lacking dreams and desires, Greek women would compare recipes, Bita says. “I cook for need, not pleasure—but other women will tell you they like it,” she adds. “In Greece, they said a woman who knows her place knows how to cook.”
By age 16, Bita couldn’t live with the thought of marrying into the middle class and “once in a blue moon, going to Italy or France and having [a husband] buy me a blouse, then telling me to go back to my cooking,” she says. “I left, but it was not so easy. I paid dearly.”
Her older brother, Thomas, a lawyer, never left. Their mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and the family— living in poverty on their father’s minimal military pension—disintegrated.
Thomas, too, was diagnosed—and died with—Alzheimer’s. “I was here, struggling,” she says. “To help, I sent money, again and again, but I was never to return.”
Until recently, that is. Bita has begun visiting the Greek Isles on summer vacations with her husband.
Bita had a sordid, abusive relationship with her first spouse (an American professor who fled to Greece), giving birth to two sons. Kimon Rethis, 40, lives outside Los Angeles, where he’s a university website designer. His daughter, 7-year-old Athena, is Bita’s only grandchild.
It’s her other son, Philip, that she pines for. A hang-glider, he “fell from the sky,” she says. He had both hands amputated in two of 15 resulting surgeries, dying a decade later after contracting Hepatitis C. Her book-in-progress, The Hang-Glider, begins with “Dear Philip.” The writing has been a painfully slow go.
It’s incredibly ironic that Philip’s fate matches Icarus’ in Greek mythology. Bita says Philip’s biological father humiliated and abused him, so he wanted to soar above everything. “When he left this world, I wanted to make a statue of him as tall as to the sky—but since I cannot do that, I will write the book,” she says. “At times, I want him to help me, and when he doesn’t, I cry—and then I can’t continue. I beg him with a mother’s love to give me a sign, but nothing yet. When? When? When? It’s been 10 years, and nothing. There’s the Greek word catharsis, meaning to free yourself. Nothing can help me, but I can still share this with others—maybe all the mothers who have lost a son in war.”
And so her creative beat goes on.
For Fringe 2010, Bita plans to debut her ongoing work on incest, a “chilly subject,” she says. “I see so many wounded people. I wrote about domestic abuse because I was abused, but incest is a step above. It’s taboo.”
On a daily basis, Bita speaks of influencing just one woman left somewhere in Greece who is washing dishes and cursing her birth, yet dreaming of taking a stage and having admirers. “If I knew her, I would kiss her feet and hold her in my arms,” Bita says.
And convince her to get out of the kitchen. “If I was writing a cookbook, we wouldn’t be [talking] today,” she says. “Plus, I don’t have any recipes. I’ve always said it’s far easier to perform at Carnegie Hall than to do a recipe.”