Playwright and poet Aimee Suzara, author of 'The Real Sappho' opening this week (online) at Cutting Ball Theater. (Bethanie Hines)
Like many figures from the classical era, the lyric poet Sappho is only known to us through fragments and conjecture. What seems certain is that she was a poet of great renown, referred to by Plato as the “Tenth Muse.” We know she was born on the Greek island of Lesbos. We know she had at least one daughter. And we know her poetry frequently centers around love: in celebration of marriage, and of romantic, same-sex longing for women.
For Oakland-based poet and playwright Aimee Suzara, integrating the story of Sappho into the present day has been a years-long process, instigated and facilitated by Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco. Now it’s finally coming to fruition in online performances of The Real Sappho on June 24 and 25.
One of a number of commissioned works (the first, Free for All by Megan Cohen, debuted in 2019), Suzara’s The Real Sappho was originally conceived as an adaptation of Estelle Lewis’ 1868 play Sappho of Lesbos. But Suzara quickly found herself less drawn to Lewis’ tragedian take on the elusive poet and more to Sappho’s own writing.
“Here’s a female figure whose little fragments of work survived over centuries,” Suzara says. “We analyze it because it’s poetry and it’s about a life and a person that we can only imagine ... [and then] we get these mythologies that were written about her ... that take the place of her actual poetry.” But Suzara asserts that Sappho’s surviving poetry, as fragmented as it is, paints a much more down-to-earth portrait than the mythologies often do.
“The idea of her jumping off a cliff because she fell in love with a shepherd boy ... was actually a myth that was written by male writers after she died,” she notes. “And the version of the story that went in Estelle Lewis’ [play] definitely followed a lot of that for the sake of it being very dramatic and tragic and high stakes. But I was reading it going, ‘Wait a second, where’s her daughter? Where are her female lovers?’ Aging is mentioned, her hair changing color ... You know this happens to mothers, and she talks about it in her poetry. I connected with that.”
But in order to create a Sappho that felt true to the source material Suzara found that mythology still had its place. Reflecting on Sappho’s poems for Aphrodite, Suzara wanted to keep that relationship to the divine as a theme in her play. Additionally she aimed to reconfigure Sappho’s island home into a place that felt closer to her own experience. To that end she invented “Oak-Island,” a fictionalized ode to her current hometown melded with inspiration drawn from time spent in Cuba, where her husband Einar Leliebre Nuñez (the composer for The Real Sappho) currently lives.
“It’s not like Oak-Island is Cuba, but ... [it’s] a place where it’s normal to be in a community setting that includes cultural expression that may include spiritual elements.” The spiritual elements she refers to appear in her play as a chorus embodying the goddess Oshun, an Orisha figure important to Cuban Santería.
“Orisha-honoring is a part of the fabric of everyday life,” Suzara explains. “It’s very common to see altars, and to have to participate in celebrations that are religious—or to at least see it or be around it.” With input from Nuñez (a Santería practitioner) she was able to infuse her exploration of divine connection with an Afro-Cuban perspective that felt more authentic to the play’s Oak-Island setting.
Of equal importance to Suzara’s Sappho (played in the Cutting Ball production by Jeunée Simon) are her other key relationships. She teaches her poetry students not only the art of the written word but that of embodiment, through dance, ritual and frank eroticism. We see her relationships to her daughter Cleis (played by Tierra Allen), and to her lovers: men and women, past and present.
It may be no coincidence that all of these fragments of Suzara’s Sappho also seem to correlate to aspects of Suzara’s own identities. She too is a poet. An instructor. A queer woman whose loves are not confined to one gender. She is a maturing mother steeped in the art of creation, and in the creation of art. This last facet of Sappho’s identity felt especially important because of, as Suzara points out, an endemic inability to see mothers as artists, or even as whole human beings.
“There’s a line in the play where (Sappho) says ‘I was a mother, and the father, and everything raising her daughter and ... I almost let my dreams go to the wayside like women always do,’” Suzara describes. “And the real threat that I constantly feel is that I could easily just say, ‘You know what? I can’t do this anymore.’ ... [But] actually as a mom, I have so much to express now and so much wisdom and knowledge. I feel like I’ve become a whole other person.”
One could even say she’s become like Sappho, even though—as she points out in our interview—we can’t know yet what mythologies will be built around her present-day legacy. “What would it be like if my work was found in hundreds of years?” she wonders aloud. “What would I want to be carried along?”
‘The Real Sappho,’ written by Aimee Suzara, directed by Nailah Harper-Malveaux, produced by Cutting Ball Theater, plays virtually June 24 and 25. Tickets and more information here.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.