The world premiere of Another Word for Beauty at the Goodman Theatre was packed. Written by playwright Jose Rivera, the musical centers around the importance of an annual event at El Buen Pastor prison in Bogota, Colombia—a beauty contest. The otherwise dismal lives of the women living in an overcrowded and underfunded prison, the tragedies (war, poverty and drug cartels) that brought them to that place and the injustices that befell them before their criminal activities are all addressed. At the same time, a rollicking beauty pageant is being thrown under the guise of rehabilitation, and this year it is being televised for the first time, adding extra pressure on the warden and an opportunity for the contestants to tell the world about their conditions. In this way, Another Word for Beauty manages to tenuously straddle the genres of comedy and drama in between the sparse but lively musical acts.
The play is part of Chicago’s eight-week “Celebration of Latina/o Artists.” In addition to the play, there will be related events, such as an Artist Encounter talk between Jim DeRogatis of WBEZ Sound Opinions, playwright Rivera, composer Hector Buitrago and director Steve Coson. On another occasion, you can attend a pre-show event hosted by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs on the use of beauty pageants as a rehabilitation tool in prisons worldwide.
The play begins with Ciliana (played by Socorro Santiago) as narrator and tour guide. She is the prison’s oldest resident, a woman who was born there and commits increasingly punishable crimes just to maximize her sentence. In spite of that, she is a charming hostess, gifted with a playful spirit, the magical ability to see other’s pasts (which she shares with us) and a very spicy vocabulary. She gives the play its heart and a some much-needed comic relief when things get heavy. Ciliana is a simple soul who loves the pageant and the important role she plays in it as a senior resident, assisting with preparations, calming nerves and correctly predicting the winner every year.
The themes of injustice and the triumph of togetherness are deeply explored as each contestant’s terrible past is revealed. While at the same time, the meaning of beauty itself is questioned even as we are being encouraged to embrace its standard definition. By the time the former rebels, prostitutes, thieves and crack addicts make it to the beauty contest, we are almost vested in their desperate need to win, to prove their value to the world. But instead we get to see the glitz and glamour as a paltry prop while their stories are told (how they were raped, abused, sold in to prostitution, duped by a criminal, converted to a paramilitary or left-wing guerrilla group). They bare their souls to the audience via a series of responses to those awful questions beauty contestants everywhere have to answer. “If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be?” asks the former queen turned hostess. “My freedom!” shouts Xiomara. “Really? There’s nothing else you’d wish for? World peace? A cure for AIDS?” The hostess pleads. What follows is a heartfelt monologue on what freedom would feels like to someone deprived of it.
Another Word for Beauty feels so authentic, from the frequency of curses to the prison conditions, largely because it is authentic. The artists (Latina actors from NYC-based theater company The Civilians) all traveled to Bogota to interview prisoners prior to the pageant. Director Coson’s company devises theater based on thought-provoking real world events, and composer/musician Buitrago is from the activist band Aterciopelados. His music adds to the joyous Carnival energy of the pageant as it unfolds. Even the costumes, created by Emily Rebholz, are cleverly designed to capture all of the glamour and ephemera of beauty on a budget. The only drawback to such enthusiastic and authentic work is that it sometimes comes across as pedagogic, with an inclination towards telling us how to feel by occasional tirades.
Perhaps most astounding were the well fleshed-out characters of Yolanda, Xiomara, Marilin, Luzmery, Nora, Carmen, Isabelle and Jeimi. They are women who could go from weeping over their children being taken away from them, to camping it up with the host, to righteous indignation over the state of their treatment, all in one fell swoop. While the roles they played were those of women rendered powerless not just by their incarceration but also by the way their culture treats women, they clearly demonstrated how a woman is never truly powerless if she is brave and has sisterhood as her buoy. Another Word for Beauty is thought-provoking, humorous, exuberant and heart-breaking all at once, which makes for a complete theatrical experience.
Another Word for Beauty runs at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, until February 21. Tickets range from $25-$77.