Another Word for Beauty
Finding Freedom in The Moment
Another Word for Beauty, a collaboration between The Civilians, playwright José Rivera, composer Hector Buitrago, and The Goodman Theatre, played to a near-capacity house in mid January 2016. A play with music, Another Word for Beauty portrays an annual beauty pageant held at Buen Pastor, a womens' prison in Bogota, Colombia. At first glance, this scenario may appear to be a work of fiction. But Civilians Artistic Director Steve Cosson, employed what he calls investigative theatre—in this case a series of interviews with inmates at Buen Pastor—to generate the raw material for the play.
There's a paradox at the heart of Another Word For Beauty, as the creative team and the characters wrestle with the seemingly oppositional ideas of revolt and complacency. The question is: If imprisonment is unjust, why do the inmates of Buen Pastor accept a beauty pageant when they could protest and strive to regain their freedom—or, at least improve their conditions within the prison?
Rivera embedded the argument within the following passage by Tatiana, an ex-guerilla housed in patio four:
Tatiana: The truth is—even though you know it's stupid, you know it's nothing but emotional manipulation—if they put the same amount of money into some teachers and books, we'd all have something to look forward to.
Knowledge is power. Imagination is empowerment. By studying law, prisoners often discover loopholes in their cases, which can lead to reduced sentences, or in some cases, freedom. Some prisoners earn high school diplomas and college degrees while incarcerated, thereby improving their prospects when they are released. Through reading history, novels, and poetry, prisoners may escape their circumstances for a few hours every day. Of course, once they close those books, they remain behind the prison walls. They've still got to eat food that's arguably unfit for consumption, inhale the unpleasant odors of their cellmates, and live in cramped quarters. And, in many cases, the mixture of boredom, anxiety, and rage pushes prisoners to test one another, lashing out at guards and fellow inmates alike. So there's certainly some practical wisdom in establishing events like the pageant.
Nora, another ex-guerilla housed in patio four, recognizes the positive aspects of the pageant, even as she questions them:
Nora: The pageant gets women who can't stand each other to work together. It gets women out of their bunks and their depression and gets them doing something, making floats and dresses and learning dances and believing in themselves and shit. Okay? It makes the time pass, is that bad?
“The pageant serves as a psychological boost in these womens' lives,” Rivera said.
It's a way to blow off steam. It's a way to encourage cooperation between people who wouldn't otherwise cooperate. It gives them something bigger than themselves to work on. It's all about teamwork, self-sacrifice, and having your sister's back. Then, too, they have a lot of fun with it.
There's real satisfaction to be found in taking raw materials—discarded boxes, rags, newspapers—and using them to create something new and useful. The magic of the theatre lies in taking common objects and re-purposing them for performance. In taking a handcart and attaching some painted cardboard, we now have a float that resembles a mass of clouds.
When the performer steps up onto the makeshift platform, fitted with wings and smiling in spite of her own misfortunes, she flies. Though the illusion is obvious, the magic of the moment is no less profound. Really, to use such materials to transform our everyday environments, and thus our realities, is alchemical. These creative acts transform material poverty into beautiful art, bodily imprisonment into mental and spiritual freedom.
In Another Word For Beauty, the need for freedom and lasting, positive change is not blunted by the pageant. Indeed, in the play, the platform of the pageant gives the inmates a chance to free their voices.
One of my lifelong goals is the desire to give unrepresented voices the chance to be heard. These women are as marginalized and hidden away as people can be. They have no way to tell their stories beyond their inner-circles. The play seeks to rescues those stories from oblivion, so that they can be heard somewhere.
Though Rivera often does research, he said that this process was new to him. “It's less typical to have so many living sources to draw from,” Rivera said. “In theatre, I've never worked this way before. The job of the writer became crafting the story, with existing material, in a compelling way. I didn't have to create the world; I didn't have to create the rules. I used what was given to me.”
Through an involved interview process, the marginalized voices of these women have escaped the walls of that prison in Bogota.
Through an involved interview process, the marginalized voices of these women have escaped the walls of Buen Pastor. Just as the prison guards and officials make it nearly impossible to smuggle contraband inside the prison walls, they work just as diligently to keep things inside—especially stories about prison conditions.
“The process of getting all the permissions that we needed was extraordinarily complicated,” Cosson, said. “But Ellen Fuksbrauner, our Colombian project manager, started working nine months before our arrival—going to the bureaucratic offices and getting all the permissions. She was very thorough, but, when we showed up on that first day, they didn't let us in.”
The bureaucratic red tape designed to discourage Cosson's team didn't work.
“We got the same document and went back the next day,” Cosson continued,
We had permission for five people to come in with five recorders, but then they said, “Oh, only three recorders are allowed. Five recorders is a security risk.” Then a couple of days before the start of the pageant, La Directora was chatting with everyone in her office. As they left, she said “Oh, and what a shame that none of you will be able to see the pageant.” We had to go over her head so that we could all be there.
The play includes interviews with women from many sides of the Civil War in Colombia, which has dragged on for nearly a century, and texts generated by inmates who participated in workshops led by Rivera. At once raw and lyrical, these texts have been structured into alternating scenes of complex socio-political relations, intense arias of individual pain and struggle, and moments of joyous dance, music, and metatheatrics.
Xiomara, an inmate who was raped as a child, articulates the painful aftermath of such crimes:
Xiomara: A long time ago, I learned that my body didn't belong to me. Like it was hijacked. I don't even remember why. So I didn't live in it for the longest time. I wouldn't give it food or water and the sleep I gave it was filled with raging monsters. And the mind it contained was neglected too … I wouldn't fill it with anything useful … and it lived in quiet, underwater darkness.
“We don't want to speak only to one audience,” Henry Godinez, director, actor, and associate artist at The Goodman, said. “Great stories are universal. How the female body is used and abused has always been an important story to investigate and engage. But especially in this political climate.”
Just as the performance draws from many performance traditions, the text was created by a community of artists, citizens, and prisoners who have all participated in, or have been moved by the pageant.
“When we're doing interviews for a show, they are often very open ended,” Cosson said.
It's really about listening and creating a space for the other person to talk, to share, and to direct where the interview might go. The point of taking the time to go out into the world, and to sit down with somebody else, is to bump up against what you don't know, what you couldn't have imagined. We want to push beyond our own preconceived ideas.
For instance, there's the relationship between Nora (an ex-guerrilla) and Isabelle (an ex- paramilitary). They spent their lives fighting for opposing factions in the long running conflict. Yet, inside the prison walls, they developed a tender friendship.
“I imagined that the life experiences of the women in prison would speak to broader issues,” Cosson commented.
The aims of these artists go deeper than developing complex character relationships and intriguing plot twists. The interviews act as documents of oppression; the oral tradition is recorded for contemporary audiences to experience, and for future scholars to study. The resulting performance embodies Brecht's belief that we learn best when we are also being entertained.
“I'd lived in Colombia for a year in 1991, on a Fulbright grant,” Cosson said. “So I had a familiarity with the country.” It was during his stay in Colombia that Cosson met Hector Buitrago, a Bogota-born musician and composer making his first foray into the theatre.
The interviews act as documents of oppression; the oral tradition is recorded for contemporary audiences to experience, and for future scholars to study.
“I knew about the pageant, and liked the idea of doing a performance about it,” Buitrago said. “I went to the jail, watched the pageant, and started getting ideas.” Witnessing the pageant was both inspiring and emotional for Buitrago.
I felt the happiness of the pageant and the sadness of the women. I felt an impotence, seeing them in that situation. They're from all over Colombia, so they played music from all over the country. It was surreal. I tried to get in touch with all of those emotions by including music from all over Colombia.
The mixture of musical traditions, which includes Folklorico, Cumbia, and Reggaeton, to name a few, creates a musical soundscape that every bit as rich and varied as Colombia.
“Colombia and the US have a very strong, complicated relationship,” Cosson said.
My experience in the US is that it often gets written off in shorthand of “Colombia is the place where drugs and coffee come from.” Americans in general … I don't think we really excel as a nation at being thoughtful about the realities of life in other countries. Or how our nation influences real life in other nations, and the people who live there.
“The reality is much more complicated than we can possibly imagine,” Rivera added. “We live in fucked up times, politically. In terms of immigration, who is or isn't American, what is the Other, what is the mainstream? I always find that, at least in popular culture, the Latina/o image is negative, dismissive.”
While the interviews are important documents in themselves, Rivera has shaped those raw texts into a compelling narrative that entertains as it illuminates the complexity of its characters. Each of the contestants is beautiful in her own way, but only one may win. Jeimi, the winner of last year’s pageant, serves as master of ceremonies. She asks Luzmery, an inmate who lacks formal education: “If you could travel in time, what period of history would you like to visit and why?”
Luzmery: 1492. I would wait for Columbus's ships to reach Cuba, then I would take the rocket launcher I would bring with me from the future and blow that nasty little Italian's ass out of the water and save the indigenous people of South America forever.
The easy answer would be to travel forward to when Luzmery would be released from prison to rejoin her family and friends. Instead, Luzmery wants to go back in time, to right wrongs that have destroyed countless lives, people, and cultures. Her understanding is simultaneously concerned with history, how it plays out in the present, and how it influences the future. Her beauty runs much deeper than appearances.
And therein we find the freedom of the speech act, and the spiritual expansion that often accompanies it. Watching Luzmery (played by Danaya Esperanza) speak those lines, I had the impression that she was glowing; as though her light was coming not from the grid, or a follow spot, but from within. With moments like this, Another Word For Beauty becomes one of those rare pieces of theatre that captures and channels a wide breadth of voices into a theatrical song that goes straight to the heart.