By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – Just ten days before Lili Bita is to make her 7th annual appearance in a dramatic production at Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival, a living testament to the dramatic nature of real life appeared in her mailbox.
“I received a letter from an inmate on death row in Pennsylvania’s prison system,” Bita said, “and it caused me great concern and confusion.”
Like people the world over who have seen Bita perform and read her writings, the man who wrote to her expressed his admiration for her work. But he added a personal request that could potentially lead Bita to participate in a pen-pal relationship with a convict: a request to exchange their writings. A poet, essayist, and writer (his first collection of poems, “Leaving Death Row,” is sold at Barnes and Noble and on several on-line bookstores, including Amazon.com), Lewis Reginald (who insists on his innocence) said, “These words are not meant to harm anyone, only to network with gifted artists in the community of writers.”
“Upon reading this letter,” Bita said, “I felt confusion and fear, certainly, but I also feel compassion and pity. At the same time, I don’t want to forget about the victim of the crime of which he was convicted.”
It is this pulling at the wide complexity of human emotions that is the epitome of Bita’s work. This year at The Fringe Festival, she will cover the broad spectrum of those emotions in her performance of “The Greek Woman Through the Ages.” In five monologues from classic ancient Greek theater, she will portray the characters of Hecuba, Clytemnestra, Medea, Electra, and Lysistrata. She will also present the poetry of Sappho and the contemporary Greek poets Olga Broumas, Eleni Fourtouni, and Kiki Dimoula. An added highlight to the performance will be the accompanying dance movements of Mackenzie Reid.
“I believe it is so important to expose our Greek heritage to an American audience, especially the kind of audience that attends productions at such an avant-garde festival as The Fringe,” Bita asserted. “The tragic characters explored in this production demonstrate the timelessness of ancient Greek tragedy through parallels to women in modern life.
“Hecuba mourns the death and destruction of the Trojan War. With wars taking place in Iraq and other places, we go through the same emotions.
“Today, women are left by their husbands; they are mistreated, oppressed, and beaten up. Medea deals with these issues.
“From Clytemnestra, we learn about the results of non-communication between husbands and wives, about the results of ignoring a spouse’s pleas.
“From Electra, who pushed her brother Orestes to kill their mother because she had killed their father, we learn about revenge and punishment.
“These are all terrifying emotions, and if we didn’t have them, our jails would be empty. But we do have them.
“Lysistrata, who convinces initially skeptical women to withhold sex from their husbands until they end the Peloponnesian War, gives an example of what women can achieve when they unite. It may seem that men try to keep us down no matter what we do, but we have to fight for our own ideals and beliefs. After all, we are mothers; it is women who carry the human race for nine months in their bodies and eternally in their souls.”
It took women writers, Bita said, to change the image ancient (male) dramatists portrayed of them.
“Men depicted women the way they saw themselves. After all, men were not only the writers but also the actors, even in the portrayal of women, in the ancient dramas. But the writings of Sappho are celebratory of the spirit of women.”
In her own work, Bita points to “The Scorpion and Other Stories,” as celebrating the spirit of women, especially of women who overcame their desperate situations.
An actress and author who has, over the last three decades, appeared widely on stage, television and radio and has held appointments at several universities in America, Bita tours extensively with her one-woman shows, “The Greek Woman Through the Ages,” “Body Light” and “Freedom or Death.”
She recently returned from her second trip to India, a nation, she said, where the people greatly admire Greek culture. (“I was even able to teach Greek language classes,” she notes.) Having performed during a 19-day tour of the country six years ago at the invitation of Kyklos, an organization of Indian lovers of Greek culture, her recent visit found her in a 300-seat theater in Ahmedabad, designed in the architectural style of the ancient Greek theater, known as the Darpana Academy.
Last month in Greece, Bita celebrated the publication in Greek (“the language of my blood”) of “Lightening in the Flesh,” (Iolkos Publishers), a highly-praised book of her poetry that had originally been published in translation in English. In addition to her upcoming performance (billed as “the women before My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) at The Fringe Festival (http://commerce.klatha.com/fringe/2003/templates/details.cfm?id=2597), Bita looks forward to the publication of her autobiographical novel, Sister of Darkness, by Creative Arts Book Company of Berkeley, Calif., in the spring of 2004. She will also be writing her next book, a non-fiction work about the death of her young son, called “The Hang Glider.” An excerpt of the book, which will be translated into English by her husband Prof. Robert Zaller, is scheduled to appear in the October issue of The Bucks County Writer magazine.
While that part of her future is clear, what she will do about the inmate’s request is not. Though still confused about the situation, she acknowledges that, “People change. Through writing, reading, and literature, they can learn that the world is not about killing, it’s about love; poetry can even reach the dark depths of death cells.”