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Hunger in Heartland


Growing up on a family farm in the San Joaquin Valley, I have intimately learned of what food production looks like: hard work, long hours, and sometimes little profits, but more importantly delicious summers. I have also known the paradoxes of our agricultural neighborhood witnessing both bounty on the land and need in our communities. For many years, I have been hungry to explore the paradox of food and hunger around my home; but opportunities to do so collectively and through art have been rare in my life. But then, Cornerstone Theater Company came to town.

After an amazing month, when Cornerstone Theater Company’s 2011 Institute Summer Residency in Fowler, California came to a close, I wasn’t ready to let it go. Luckily, over cups of coffee, a potluck, and shared conversations the Valley Storytellers Project was born out of Cornerstone Theater Company’s willingness to collaborate with and support one local’s (me) desire to keep it going. Planning began the following month.

On January 14th and February 4th, 2012, the first event of the Valley Storytellers Project became a reality in spectacular fashion. Surrounded by fields of grapevines and built on land that was previously a fruit orchard, Sanger High School served as a fitting place to begin this journey. In coordination with Cornerstone Theater Company’s Hunger Cycle, we set out to explore what hunger means in the San Joaquin Valley with fifteen storytellers. The group of storytellers represented a diverse range of perspectives from Central Valley – from a 17 year old to an 88 year old. On the first day they gathered in Sanger to tell stories about hunger with each other, local writers, and Cornerstone directors and facilitators.

“We filled the cafeteria with laughter, and even some tears.”

The day began with cultural mapping exercises about food. We asked the storytellers questions like: what was the best last meal you ate? What do you like to eat when you are sick? What eating utensil do you prefer amongst: fork, chopsticks, bread, or hands? If you could pick your last meal, what would you eat? The storytellers shared beautiful experiences rich with love and comedy, and also sadness and loss. We filled the cafeteria with laughter, and even some tears.

The playwrights then re-generated those stories into two original plays about hunger in the Valley. Three weeks after the day of storytelling, two the new plays were born: If Hunger Could Speak written by Cindy J. Thao, and Helpings by co-writers Anthony Cody and Mai Der Vang. Each play reflects on hunger in wonderfully different ways. Helpings tells the story of a young teenager living in the Valley and his struggle to with the responsibility of feeding his family. It takes the audience on a journey through a daily and very real drama of scarcity and how people can “make it through” with help from the Food Bank and kindness.

The Valley Storytellers share their writing.

Through several vignettes, If Hunger Could Speak showcases a range of relationships with hunger and between people – a new mother and her breastfeeding child, a child whose parents work in the fields and her teacher, a homeless man and his son, to name a few. When one character asks, “Can people really die of hunger?” the audience is invited to think of different forms of hunger and how human relationships can create fullness or need. Two very distinct plays in their structure and content, each portrays an honest and touching portrait of hunger in the Valley.

After a morning of rehearsal, the storytellers read these beautiful plays with honesty and courage in front of an audience of about seventy. As one of the coordinators of the first event of the Valley Storytellers Project, I could not have been more proud.

The overall richness of this experience for me is reflected in two particular moments during the project. The morning of the second day, I sat in on the first read-through of one of the new plays. As soon as the group finished and the director, Daniel Penilla, asked for people’s reactions, one storyteller immediately spoke up. With her hand pressed into the heart of her script, she looked up and exclaimed, “This is us!” A chorus of audible “Yes!” and head nods followed.

As an observer, that moment felt like the discovery of collective truth: when the courage to share is met with an artist’s deep listening and the product is not only a new play, but an unquantifiable joy, reverence, and sense of empowerment. It’s as if the storytellers were saying, yes, you see us, you understand us, thank you. For me, that moment summarizes art at its best – it reaches out to people, echoes a collective truth, and creates deeper understanding in a world of diverse human experiences.

“A woman from Sanger approached me … and said:
‘Thank you for brin
ging this work to the Valley.‘ ”

The second deep moment unfolded after the public reading. A woman from Sanger approached me after the show and gave me a big hug. She looked me in the eyes, grabbed my hand, and said, “Thank you for bringing this work to the Valley.” While the praise never feels bad, the larger reason this comment has stayed with me is because it reflects upon the significance of doing storytelling and theater work in this Valley.

Projects like this make public the richness of the people and their lives here. Like all places, there is something uniquely special about this Valley, and simultaneously there is something not special, qualities and stories that are significant beyond regional identity. There is hunger, riches, drama, comedy, delicious recipes, and desperate stomachs. There are more stories to tell in this Valley, and I am deeply appreciative of the fullness I feel from this first Valley Storytellers Project.

Nikiko Masumoto first learned to love food as a young child slurping the nectar of overripe organic peaches on the Masumoto Family Farm. Her work focuses on the intersections of performance, social justice, and memory through research on Japanese American Redress and other related topics.

Read The Sanger Herald article about The Valley Storytellers Project.


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