Stage Left Theatre

After a decade in which the arts in general and theater in particular have become increasingly apolitical, it’s refreshing to see a play that’s not afraid to make a strong political statement. Mary Gallagher’s De Donde? is named for the first question–“Where are you from?”–that Immigration and Naturalization Service agents ask Hispanics they suspect of being illegal aliens.

National origin, it seems, and politics mean everything to the INS. If a refugee happens to be fleeing a regime the United States condemns, say the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, then he or she is an “immigrant” and welcomed into the country. However, if a refugee happens to be fleeing a government backed by the United States, say El Salvador or Guatemala, then he or she becomes an “undocumented alien” and is placed in a “processing center.” Here aliens may stay for months, until they agree to voluntary deportation or until they have earned enough, at a-dollar-a-day jobs in the center, to pay their bond, which may be set at $3,000 or more. In Gallagher’s play, one character’s bond is set at a staggering $25,000: but then, he is suspected of being a left-wing terrorist in his home country, El Salvador.

Set in the Rio Grande valley of Texas, Gallagher’s essentially plotless but nonetheless fascinating docudrama covers a broad canvas, portraying the frustrating bureaucracy that imprisons these aliens without just cause and then, after going through the motions of giving them a fair hearing, sends them back to the countries they’ve fled. Gallagher carefully shows how intensely political the whole process is. Everyone has an ax to grind, from the nonprofit lawyers who defend the refugees as a way of getting back at the “Gipper” to the INS officials who expect every alien to be a left-wing guerrilla or guerrilla sympathizer.

But Gallagher also takes pains to show that much of what is most arbitrary and unjust in the treatment of the refugees springs from the banal side of evil–from ignorance, thoughtlessness, and an unwillingness to face the true complexity of things, both in the United States and in Central America. No one seems to have actually planned the hearing process, which doesn’t take into account that the refugees cannot speak or read English–some can’t even read Spanish–and do not understand our laws and customs. (All the aliens in the play regard bond payment as a fancy American version of bribery, which they know so well at home.)

Despite Gallagher’s clear left-wing agenda, she works hard to show that there are human beings on both sides of the issue: her border guards and INS officials are as well-rounded, and often as sympathetic, as her aliens and their lawyers. True, the characters with whom we sympathize most are the beleaguered aliens: the 17-year-old student who fled El Salvador after being tortured for dissent, the Guatemalan army deserter sickened by life in the military, the woman so terrified by some past trauma that she will talk to no one, and is known only as Extrana, “the stranger.” It goes without saying that the frantic nonprofit lawyers and their paralegals come off well. After all, they work against tremendous odds trying to obtain political asylum for their clients–out of a thousand claims the lawyers file a year, three people are granted asylum. But Gallagher also sketches the details of life in the border patrol, and even the INS officials come off as more harried than evil.

Set on a virtually bare stage with a minimum of props, Stage Left Theatre’s low-budget production of De Donde? is truly an actors’ play. In fact, its life depends entirely on the show’s ensemble of 14 actors, many of whom perform two or more roles. Director Mike Troccoli clearly has worked hard to bring the performances of the show’s less experienced cast members up to the level of his strongest, most experienced actors.

The result is an ensemble that’s tight: even the potentially chaotic entrances and exits of the play’s 32 characters are handled like clockwork. Of course, Troccoli’s work in Stage Left’s long-running late-night show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, in which a small ensemble performs 30 “plays” in 60 minutes, may well have prepared Troccoli for this feat.

The best performances by far were turned in by Phil Riderelli (who, for the record, is a friend of mine), as the paralegal who falls in love with one of his clients, and Michael Ramirez, as the border guard who discovers that his fiancee is hiding illegal aliens in her home. But it’s hard not to admire everyone involved in this well-written, well-executed production.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David and Nancy Konczal.