Oliver Saria knows the glory of a lechon – the crackle and crackle as you slice through the pork’s fatty skin, the juicy succulence of its slowly roasted flesh. The San Francisco-based playwright grew up eating huge portions of whole pork lechon at large Filipino family gatherings, and he says the dish has come to symbolize all the joy and abundance of food culture filipino.
“Nothing says fiesta like lechon,” says Saria, general manager of San Francisco’s Bindlestiff Studio, which bills itself as the only black box theater in the United States dedicated to showcasing Filipino American performing arts. “There was no full celebration if you didn’t have a lechon.”
But the past few years have caused Saria to rethink her relationship with Filipino food, especially since several members of the local Filipino American arts community died young due to complications from diabetes and heart disease. Then the pandemic happened and people who were laid off from their jobs found themselves without a safety net. Saria had to drive a Bindlestiff staff member to the emergency room because he had lost his health insurance and was rationing his diabetes medication. “He probably could have died that night,” Saria recalled.
Saria reviewed data showing that Filipino Americans have some of the highest rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. “Growing up as a Filipino American, I realized a lot of that was rooted in the food we ate,” he says. “That’s a lot of meat and rice.”
Is there then such a thing as too lechon? Saria’s new piece, Inay Dalisay’s World Famous Lechon, takes this question. Directed by Aureen Almario, the play will make its world debut this week in Bindlestiff, the heart of the Filipino cultural hub of SoMa district, with a two-weekend run from June 16-25. This is the theater’s first full stage production since before the pandemic.