(Originally published January 5, 2016)
During the annual beauty pageant in Colombia’s Buen Pastor Prison at the center of José Rivera’s Another Word for Beauty, the competing female inmates not only show off their flashy gowns and dance moves onstage, but they reveal intimate, harrowing details about their own lives and the circumstances that led to their imprisonment. Outside the walls of Buen Pastor, millions of currently and formerly incarcerated women across the world have stories to share as well.
For this reason, the Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, a Chicago organization offering legal services to currently and formerly incarcerated mothers and caregivers of children whose parents are in prison or jail, formed the peer support and empowerment group Visible Voices. Goodman Theatre works with this program, now an entity of Cabrini Green Legal Aid, further supporting this often marginalized population.
Rivera’s play serves as a vessel for the stories of the imprisoned Colombian women. Similarly, Visible Voices, run by and for formerly incarcerated women, is dedicated to building skills, creating humane policy change and advocating for incarcerated people in Chicago. In partnership with Cabrini Green Legal Aid, Goodman Theatre Education staff members Bobby Biedrzycki and Brandi Lee serve as teaching artists in Visible Voices. During their time with participants, Biedrzycki and Lee use story-sharing and performance processes to engender support and empowerment for these women as they transition back into the community and advocate for change.
Returning citizens are too often told that their point of view doesn’t matter. Visible Voices reminds them that what they have to say is important and valued, and that they can make a difference.
“The [Buen Pastor] pageant is designed to give the women something to do that’s bigger than themselves and to really foster teamwork,” Rivera said of the annual event, which he attended in 2012 with the play’s director Steve Cosson; together with a group of Colombian theater artists they interviewed nearly 70 inmates. “As the research continued and we were able to observe what was happening, it dawned on the both of us that this was a deeply human story. I want an audience to understand the basic humanity of these women, to really have their clichés and stereotypes challenged.”
In the US, inmates are challenging society’s views as well. The character of Visible Voices’ women is evident as they discuss local and national issues impacting the prison system, social justice movements, their families and their communities. As members become self-advocates, they work to promote change in state practices and break down stereotypes surrounding the incarcerated by leveraging their experiences and taking action. Returning citizens are too often told that their point of view doesn’t matter. Visible Voices reminds them that what they have to say is important and valued, and that they can make a difference.
This winter, Another Word for Beauty will help share the stories of Colombian women in the Buen Pastor Prison. We hope you’ll join the Goodman in dialogue exploring the issues of mass incarceration, prison violence and rehabilitation, as we reflect on the stories of the women, both at home and abroad.