A New Filipino American Play Asks: Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Lechon?

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Actors Aaron Orpilla (left), Giancarlo Cariola, Faye Lacanilao, Sunshine Roque, Reg Clay and Golda Sargento share a toast in a scene from 'Inay Dalisay's World Famous Lechon.' (Paciano Triunfo)

Oliver Saria knows about the glory of a lechon—the crunch and crackle when you cut into the pig’s fat-rendered skin, the juicy succulence of its slow-roasted flesh. The San Francisco-based playwright grew up eating enormous portions of whole pig lechon at big Filipino family gatherings, and he says the dish came to symbolize all of the joy and abundance of Filipino food culture.

“Nothing says fiesta like lechon,” says Saria, the managing director at San Francisco’s Bindlestiff Studio, which touts itself as the only black box theater in the United States dedicated to showcasing Filipino American performing arts. “There was not a full celebration if you didn’t have a lechon.”

But the last few years caused Saria to rethink his relationship to Filipino food, especially as several members of the local Filipino American artistic community died young due to complications from diabetes and heart disease. Then the pandemic happened, and people who were laid off from their jobs were left with no safety net. Saria had to drive one Bindlestiff staff member to the emergency room because he had lost his health insurance and was rationing his diabetes medication. “He likely could have died that night,” Saria recalls.

Playwright Oliver Saria posing for a headshot wearing a red and black checkered shirt.
Playwright Oliver Saria wrote 'Inay Dalisay' as a way for Filipino Americans to start a conversation about their foodways. (Paciano Triunfo)

Saria looked at 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. “It’s a lot of meat and rice.” 

Is there such a thing, then, as too much lechon? Saria’s new play, Inay Dalisay’s World Famous Lechon, takes on that question. Directed by Aureen Almario, the play will make its world debut this week at Bindlestiff, in the heart of the SoMa neighborhood’s Filipino cultural district, with a two-weekend run June 16–25. It’s the theater’s first full-length stage production since before the pandemic.


The play is set in the Labis family’s “dirty kitchen,” a fully decked out backyard kitchen where the characters gather together for a series of big family meals—and where they dive into some of these broader questions about health, diet and traditional Filipino foodways. It’s all meant to be handled with a light touch. (Inay Dalisay is being marketed as a “raucous comedy,” after all.)

“The play isn’t about denigrating Filipino food or only talking about how unhealthy it is,” Saria stresses. “But it is trying to bring up the topic in the community.”

Inay Dalisay is the mother of one of the characters in the play, and her legendary lechon recipe serves as one of the play’s recurring motifs. But a vegan, fake-meat lechon also makes an appearance—a nod, in part, to the large number of Filipino vegans that Bindlestiff itself has on staff. 

Meanwhile, vegan Filipino chefs like the Bay Area’s own Reina Montenegro, who was a consultant on the play, have faced pushback from Filipino Americans who question the authenticity of their food. It’s a complicated issue, Saria acknowledges—one that isn’t as simple as saying that Filipinos just need to stop eating meat. 

“You can’t really replace the taste of lechon,” he says. “I say it in the play: It’s like the purest expression of pork. Vegan food cannot be an ersatz substitute if the exact flavor is what you’re looking for.” 

For Saria, part of the answer lies in really embracing the healthy dishes and fresh ingredients that already exist in Filipino cuisine. “Vegetables are not often thought of as celebratory food. The play makes a case for celebrating those often-ignored ingredients,” he says.

What Inay Dalisay’s World Famous Lechon attempts to do, then, is straddle a tricky line—to ask audience members to reexamine their own foodways, but to do it in a culturally appropriate way. And it’s not something that only applies to Filipino Americans. Many Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities are also dealing with similar health crises, Saria points out.

“How do we adopt new customs without losing our identity?” Saria says.

‘Inay Dalisay’s World Famous Lechon’ is playing at Bindlestiff Studio on Thursdays and Saturdays at 8pm, June 16–25, with an additional 4pm matinee on Saturday, June 18. Tickets are $30 ($20 for students and seniors). Details here.