Since the very first one in 1904, beauty pageants in Colombia have become a national obsession, and the high stakes in these competitions are responsible for practically an epidemic of cosmetic surgery in young women. But no pageant may mean as much to its contestants as the one held annually for almost two decades on the feast day of Our Virgin of Mercy (patroness of prisoners) in the maximum security women’s prison of El Buen Pastor, which houses over 2,000 female inmates in Bogotá.
The story of this brief respite from prison life is brought to life in Another Word for Beauty, a play written by Oscar-nominated José Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) and directed by Steve Cosson. The play, which is Goodman Theatre, premiered this week and is part of this year’s “A Celebration of Latino/a Artists” which will take place from January 16- March 13.
Another Word for Beauty also features choreography by Cuban-American Maija García and original music by Colombian musician Héctor Buitrago of the Grammy Award–winning and pioneering Colombian indie band Aterciopelados. We had a chance to chat with both Buitrago and Rivera during the play’s rehearsals prior to the opening (with Buitrago in person, with RIvera over the phone) to get insights into the creation of the play.
Rivera created the script based upon partly of about 70 interviews with the women, as well as his experiences while conducting a writing workshop at El Pastor itself. Some of the material from those poems even made it into the play. Rivera muses that in his whole career, he had consciously avoided writing about criminals, drug users or prostitutes, preferring to concentrate on the more universal and positive images of Latino life. Another Word for Beauty, he says, is the exception: “… this is who the characters are. But my emphasis is always on their humanity, always on what circumstances, what poverty, what abuse what alcoholism had done to ruin their lives, in many cases though no fault of their own. In many cases these women are called criminals, but they had been sinned against as much as anything else. I really wanted to tell the story of the humanity behind the label”.
The play’s script follows the pattern of the real competition, including the questions at the end and a celebrity emcee (in this case a lascivious telenovela star). Each of the women, through their characters, personify aspects of Colombian societal and political conflicts. The women’s past is retold in monologues and vignettes which at times were too carefully crafted to share a message or make a point to seem real – whether about U.S. involvement in Colombian’s affairs, or consumption of cocaine in this country fueling the economic motors of Colombia’s drug industry, or the effects on the innocent due to the violence by individuals on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum – and in the end Buitrago’s music helps tell the stories best.
Buitrago’s music in more subtle ways was able to convey the humorous and tragic nuances of the scenes, taking inspiration in traditional Colombian folk music, the tropical beats of salsa which fuel Colombian dance parties, hyper-sexual reggaeton and even an unlikely torch tune of a ranchera about the killing an unfaithful lover. Other moods were conveyed by Aterciopelados’ signature rock beats, and even moments of psychedelic guitar to evoke the surreal and fantasy dimension of this beauty contest that in its months of preparations, rehearsals and costumes, frees the women from their otherwise dark and drab prison lives.
At the end of the pageant, everything goes back to normal, but the moments of beauty have had a redemptive effect. One of the final songs composed by Buitrago, “Quisiera” (I wish) manifests poignantly the hope and longing expressed and released in the pageant. As Rivera affirms, “On one hand, the pageant is absurd, and nothing will change. But something did happen, something that was important. And that is because of the love and support of the other prisoners. It’s not so much about winning the crown, but about being loved by your community.”
Another Word for Beauty is at the Goodman until Feb. 21