It's Thursday night, and inside a small classroom at a church in Clovis, a handful of actors have gathered to put the finishing touches on a new original production.
“Let’s go to the piece where this builds up before you take off into this speech,” shouts the director.
It's a theatre production of a four vignettes plus an original song, all focused an issue that's having a big impact on many Valley residents - obesity.
The Weight of Things, or El Peso de las Cosas was written by Augustin Lira. It's a collaborative production with the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, and the group Teatro de la Tierra, which he co-leads with Patricia Wells.
“You’re not going to believe it but my small kid came home and he told me, mom, I don’t exercise at school anymore, because in the school they don’t have P.E. anymore,” says one character in the play.
According to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 38 percent of Hispanic children between ages 2 and 19 are obese, compared with 31 percent of all children. The rate of obesity among Hispanic boys is even higher, at 40 percent.
The production examines the challenges many Valley parents face in trying to feed their families nutritious food, and ward off the many diseases that often go along with obesity, like diabetes. Sometimes it’s an issue of access, other times, as one of Lira's characters says, it's about cost. Healthy food is often more expensive. “Vegetables cost more than rice and beans! My family has to eat,” pleads one character in the play.
Lira, who co-founded the group El Teatro Campesino with Luis Valdez in 1965, is considered one of the fathers of the Chicano movement, says working on this new project gave him a new perspective on the obesity epidemic.
“Well, we’re all affected by obesity, all of our lives to some extent. But I was not personally aware of the situation until I started researching it. And I just found out so much stuff that it just drove me crazy. I decided to write some pieces about it,” says Lira.
One of the production's four vignettes finds a group of residents in a town hall meeting, sharing their frustrations about the lack of access to healthy food, and neighborhoods that just aren't built to make health lifestyles easy. Neighborhoods that lack basic infrastructure like sidewalks, and where it’s not safe for kids to go out and play.
“Many of us as mothers, we know that our kids, they have to eat healthy food and that they have to exercise. But honestly Julia, it’s not possible the way that our neighborhoods are. I would never allow my kids to go out into those dangerous streets,” says one character.
And one problem can often lead to another. She continues, “I hate to say it my kids, but they spend most of their time in the tiny backyard, or what is worse, watching TV and eating junk food.”
The issues of proper nutrition and health are especially important to one of the production's actors, Jorge Romero. “A year ago I went to my doctor for my regular checkup and he told me ‘you are a borderline diabetic,’ so I have to change.”
Ultimately Lira hopes that this production can help raise awareness of the dangers of obesity, change people's eating habits, and their communities. “Luckily because of all the people that hopefully hear this message that they’ll be able to do something about the circumstances which they live in. But it’s very difficult to fight obesity on your own because there’s too many factors, too many things that are involved in it.”
The opening performances of The Weight of Things take place Saturday November 19th at the Unitarian Church of Fresno, and Sunday November 20th at the EOC Sanctuary Theatre in Downtown Fresno.
Special funding for this program comes from the California HealthCare Foundation