The title of Mary Gallagher’s play De Donde? is taken from the Spanish phrase meaning “Where do you come from?” It’s the first question that U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents ask Hispanics they suspect of being illegal aliens.

In Gallagher’s drama, which opens this week at Stage Left Theatre, the question has implications beyond the issue of national origin. Slightly rephrased as “Where are you coming from?” it can be asked just as pertinently about the emotional background and political commitment that motivate Salvadoran and Guatemalan peasants to flee the brutality of their governments, and American lawyers and religious persons to make a mission of helping these refugees. Acknowledging that De Donde? “is the most overtly political of all my plays,” Gallagher nonetheless is primarily concerned with the human factor–the “why?”–in her characters’ actions.

Gallagher wrote De Donde? over a period of two years–including time spent “in the field,” researching the situation of Hispanics applying for political asylum while in detention in southern Texas. “I went out with the border patrol–an interesting experience, but really upsetting,” she says. “I toured a detention center in Port Isabel. And I visited Proyecto Libertad, a nonprofit law firm that works with refugees trying to help them get political asylum. I interviewed refugees, read hundreds of affidavits, spent time with the lawyers. Then I left the valley area and went to Houston, where I went to asylum and deportation hearings, interviewed more lawyers, and visited another detention center.” Her visit to the center, dramatized in an encounter between a nun and an INS official who tells her transparent lies, “could be a whole play in itself,” she says. “It’s unbelievable, the things that people say to you and expect you to buy. Or maybe they don’t expect you to buy it, but it’s their job to say it, so they say it.”

Gallagher, who revised the play several times, says her main concern in rewriting was “to find out how best to theatricalize the material. The first draft was very docudrama, very literal.” Breaking away from factual information into stronger dramatic events was crucial to the play’s success, Gallagher feels, because her theme is the collision between statistics and lives, political causes and personal concerns. De Donde? focuses on a disparate group of people–Anglo and Hispanic, poor and middle-class, working on all sides of the law. Their only link is the corralon, a word meaning animal pen that the aliens use to describe the INS processing center where they are held. Gallagher dramatizes the cases of several men and women arrested while crossing into the United States from Mexico, including a 17-year-old Salvadoran student tortured because of his dissent against the U.S.-backed government, a Guatemalan army deserter, and a woman known only as Extrana, or “the stranger.” Traumatized and terrified after progovernment thugs have murdered her union-organizer brother, Extrana is too scared to respond when INS agents ask her the rote question “De donde?”

Her silence, it develops, suggests an intriguing but risky defense–the constitutional guarantee of freedom from self-incrimination. While Extrana waits, the lawyers debate: Should she tell her story to expose the American-backed atrocities in Central America, even if it means she may be deported? Will her case–that of a woman subject to rape and torture because of her brother’s political activities–justify her application for political asylum? Will her silence defense–and its underlying, uncertain assumption that immigrants are entitled to the same rights as citizens–hold up all the way to the Supreme Court?

Gallagher also examines the lawyers and paralegals who stagger under a crushing caseload–among them Pete, who still wrestles with his own guilt because he fled to Canada to evade the Vietnam draft rather than go to jail. And a young nun grapples with her fear and conflicting notions of right and wrong as she takes increasingly illegal steps to shelter refugees.

“I really got involved in the politics of Central America because of reading about the nuns doing that work,” says Gallagher, a self-acknowledged lapsed Catholic. “I left the church when I was about 20–I’m 42 now–and the sanctuary movement and liberation theology are the first things that have made me really proud of the Catholic church–or some of the people in it. Offering the kingdom of heaven to the poor as the only solution to their troubles on earth is not enough. There are priests and nuns really speaking out and making big sacrifices in their lives to help people.”

Gallagher makes no bones about her sympathies in the immigration issue. But she knows, and seeks to dramatize, that emotions are sincere and intense on both sides of the matter. Her struggle as a writer in a sense parallels the struggle faced by the American lawyers, judges, and law-enforcement officials involved in immigrant cases: “It’s: do I treat this person as a person, or do I stick with my beliefs on the issue?” Gallagher says. “It’s a really huge question.”

Gallagher’s earlier plays and film scripts reflect on the link between social and emotional concerns, and especially in women’s lives, a link that dominates De Donde? To local audiences, her best-known play is probably Chocolate Cake, a seriocomic one-act about a hotel-room encounter between two women–one a compulsive overeater desperately fighting off temptation, the other a sexy neurotic who is revealed to be addicted to bingeing and purging. (Chocolate Cake, coincidentally, is being performed as part of the Directors Festival at Bailiwick Repertory, 3212 N. Broadway, Tuesday, March 20, at 8 PM.)

“You can’t really separate human problems from politics,” Gallagher maintains. “Chocolate Cake is about the images that are force-fed to us and how trapped we become in them.”

De Donde? is Gallagher’s ninth play; she’s at work now on her tenth. Her plays have all been produced at regional and off-off-Broadway theaters, where she’s happy to be seen. “When I started writing plays in 1975, I didn’t even know any playwrights. Now it seems there’s one behind every piece of furniture. There’s been a real boom in play writing as an art form . . . and there’s a real belief that the best work is probably done in noncommercial theater, and the best theater doesn’t make money, so you have to have sponsorship for it.”

Meanwhile, Gallagher makes a steady living by developing screenplays for film and TV. (The 1986 movie for television Nobody’s Child, which she scripted with Ara Watson, won a Writer’s Guild award.) “Probably one out of 50 scripts that get developed is actually produced,” she says wryly of the movie business. “But you make a nice living. I only do it when they pay me.”

De Donde? is a play with a purpose, Gallagher notes. It’s being produced here partly to raise funds for local organizations that assist refugees; beyond that, it answers a moral imperative that Gallagher feels drama is uniquely qualified to fulfill.

“I want to help people see these issues in more personal, human terms,” she says. “I hope everyone who sees this play will take the next step, whatever that is for them. That might mean writing a letter, going to a demonstration, or just that now, when you read an article in the newspaper, you think twice about what it says. You try to read between the lines. Because that’s what you have to do. . . . I think there is a very strong movement in this country to make our country more enlightened in its policies toward the rest of the world. I want this play to be part of that movement.”

De Donde? appears at Stage Left Theatre, 3244 N. Clark, through April 22. Tickets are $7-$10; call 883-8830 for further information and tickets.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.