It was the mishap heard around the world: Steve Harvey mistakenly announced Miss Colombia as winner of Miss Universe, only to revoke her title and strip away the crown in front of millions of viewers. It's not the first time a Colombian pageant queen had her crown taken away. At El Buen Pastor, a women's prison in Bogotá, Colombia, the inmates are all too familiar with a moment of glory—winning the annual beauty pageant competition—and the harsh reality that prison life trods on.
Another Word for Beauty chronicles this true-life jail-cell beauty pageant. Penned by Academy Award nominee José Rivera, the music-and-movement filled play received its world premiere on Jan. 16 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Directed by Steve Cosson, and featuring new music by Grammy Award winner Héctor Buitrago, the show was developed through a co-commission between the Goodman and Cosson's investigative theatre company The Civilians—an intersection between art and journalism to tackle current issues.
After taking a life-changing Latin American Studies course in at Dartmouth College, Cosson completed a Fulbright year to study theatre in Colombia in 1991. Years later, after starting The Civilians, he decided it was time to take on an international subject. Through a series of mutual friends he met a photographer who had captured the pageant at El Buen Pastor . "Once I knew it existed, it just called out to be the subject; to be the story of the show."
As part of his investigative theatre, Cosson, along with Rivera and Buitrago, traveled down to Colombia several years ago and interviewed over 70 women at El Buen Pastor and attended the pageant. "All of us that were there for the pageant agree that it was some of the most amazing theatre that we've ever seen. It was so real. The audience was so deeply invested in it," says Cosson. Rivera described it as having a circus atmosphere and kind of like Theatre of the Absurd. "[Our] play is strong but I don't know if it will ever capture that totally absurd, almost anarchy that we saw."
With a nearly all-female cast that includes 11 Latina women and one Latino man, Another Word for Beauty creates opportunities for women in the theatre, particularly Latinas, and challenges cultural stereotypes. "Surreal, fantastic, and exciting," is how actress Zoë Sophia Garcia describes what it has been like to be a part of this production. "In the sense of diversity or stereotypes, a lot of people think, 'Oh, well, Latinos are all darker complexion with dark eyes and dark hair,' and I think this show shows an array of what women can look like: curvy, thin, pale, dark, curly hair, straight hair, blonde, brunette. I think that's important for people to see that not all Latinos or Latinas look the same."
Garcia plays Nora, a renounced member of the people's army, Farc, who has been imprisoned for 12 years. "She's interesting because as this idealist, the beauty pageant goes against her ideals but the first scene you see with her is her arguing for the beauty pageant," says Garcia. "I think that's the great thing about this play is that these women are so real in the sense of their inconsistencies…Nora is conflicted. Conflicted with what she doesn't like about the beauty pageant, with what it says about women, but at the same time sees that the beauty pageant is a great release from prison life and the mundane day-to-day work and a positive experience."
Some might be surprised that a show written and directed by men includes gritty roles for women that society expects women creative to tackle. "Yeah, it was something that I thought of: How funny doing this play [about women] that's written by a man and directed by a man," says Garcia. "But I never once in the rehearsal room that never bothered me. That never made me go, 'The women are being disrespected,' or that we were being disrespected or that the characters were not getting the justice that they needed."
Historically, most of Rivera's plays center around female characters. "This [show] sort of takes that to the extreme, but I've always been interested in the issues of Latin women," says Rivera. "In our culture, just because sort of traditional machismo, the role of women has always been very difficult. And this play really celebrates their intelligence, their grace, their spiritual power and all those aspects." Rivera created the characters in the show after melding together what resonated most from the different stories he was told by the prisoners. He describes the process almost like "putting together a puzzle." "I've always really been fascinated by women and I find them mysterious and I feel like I'm constantly trying to understand and learn and the writing process is a way to do that, for me."