When Maria Cominis talks about her grandmother — her “Yiayia” — she takes a moment to retrieve a hardcover book from her desk. Flipping through its gently worn pages, a collection of letters, narratives and diary entries bring her grandmother’s legacy to life.
“I found all these fragmented stories of my grandmother, and I made this book for my family and my first cousins, so we could share our love of our grandmother. And I remember my cousin said, ‘You need to put this on stage,’” shared the Cal State Fullerton professor of theatre and dance.
As a professional actress with a secret love for creative writing, Cominis had plenty of writing experience, but this was the first play she felt compelled to share. Inspired by her grandmother’s spirit and a desire to fill the theater with a story that honored her Greek heritage, she spent six years writing her first original play, “Women of Zalongo.”
A labor of love and memory, the contemporary play was awarded a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts grant and earned semi-finalist placements in the 2022 Eugene O’Neil National Playwright’s Conference and the 2020 Bay Area Playwright’s festival. The show will be performed March 3-12 in CSUF’s Young Theatre, kicking off Women’s History Month.
“‘Women of Zalongo’ is not just a Greek story. It’s a women’s story, and it’s also an immigrant story,” said Cominis.
Telling a Story That’s Close to Home
“My grandmother inspired me all the way through,” said Cominis.
Combining elements of her grandmother’s story with Greek legend and history, the contemporary work of fiction tells the story of four generations of women who are descendants of the women of Zalongo — a group of Greek women who escaped enslavement by the Ottoman Empire in 1803 by jumping off a cliff.
“Some survived to tell their story, and according to the legend, it’s said that they danced and sang before they jumped. They celebrated their freedom because if they weren’t going to have freedom in this life, they were going to have it in the next,” explained Cominis.
As a first-generation Greek American, Cominis was inspired by the women’s bravery and courage. Looking back at her grandmother’s story, she noticed the same qualities of heroism, and she knew immediately that she had to weave the stories together and find a way to bring that legend into the present.
Although each generation of women in the play struggles with unique obstacles and limitations of choice, they are connected through shared culture and generational trauma. The characters unlock secrets of unsung histories and newfound truths, all while inviting audiences into a Greek world that they seldom see on stage.
“When people think about Greek theater, they think about ‘Antigone’ and ‘Medea.’ But, there are more stories of courageous women like my mother and my grandmother and my aunts — women who have survived devastating traumas and lived years after to tell about them,” said Cominis.
Bringing Life and Legend to the Stage
Since her grandmother’s story left the family history book and leapt onto the stage, Cominis said she’s been overwhelmed by the love and care that the cast has brought to the production of the show.
“After I read the script, I had tears in my eyes. So many women can connect to the characters and their stories, and I was one of them. I felt empowered,” shared Kaliana Caldwell, a second-year student in the B.F.A. theatre-acting program who plays Halime in the show.
At every rehearsal, Cominis has seen the cast adopt the story and “deepen the meaning of the play.” For Ashley Reed, a junior in the B.F.A. theatre-acting program who plays Tina, the story has become a love letter to the influential women in her life.
“I have a single mom who has raised three daughters, and she turned to my grandmother for help whenever she needed it. These two women have heavily influenced who I am today. I am looking forward to sharing this story with the two of them,” said Reed.
The company consists of 17 actors, including CSUF alumni, industry professionals, current students, professional designers and staff.
“This collaboration is very important because it gives us a taste of what the industry is really like,” shared Keza Kananura, a third-year student in the B.F.A. theatre-acting program.
“The collaboration, bravery and trust that is necessary to bring a character to life for the first time, especially with the playwright in the room, has been a rewarding process,” added Briana O’Brien, a senior theatre student who plays Young Eleni.
This will be alumna and director Kari Hayter’s ’11 (M.F.A. theatre arts-directing), fourth time returning to the Young Theatre to direct a performance. Since pre-production started in 2022, she shared that she’s been amazed by the high-level of dedication and commitment that the cast has brought to every rehearsal.
“Maria was an inspiration to me when she was my teacher in graduate school,” said Hayter. “Every rehearsal reflects a positive and collaborative environment where artists are coming together for the good of the story. To work with artists who are consistently collaborative and full of ideas is a true gift in the theater.”
Cossette Asenjo, a junior in the B.F.A. theatre-musical theatre program plays Katina, a Greek woman from Turkey whose quiet strength helps her face adversity. While playing Katina, Asenjo said she’s learned how to make connections with her castmates and trust her instincts as an actor.
“The people who we cast came into the audition with a passion for the story, and some shared they connected the story to their own culture,” said Cominis. “It’s really rewarding to see them grow as artists, and I can’t wait to share it with audiences.”