A few weeks before rehearsals began for Another Word for Beauty, Academy Award-nominated playwright José Rivera sat down with the Goodman’s Dramaturg Neena Arndt to discuss his research, the themes of the play and Colombian beauty pageants.
Neena Arndt: How did you become interested in Buen Pastor Prison, the facility in Bogotá where a beauty pageant takes place each year?
José Rivera: Well, it started off a little ironically; I had been approached by a film company to adapt a documentary called La Corona, and that documentary was about the beauty pageants in the Buen Pastor Prison. I agreed to write the screenplay. At almost the very same time, Steve Cosson of The Civilians approached me about writing a theatrical version of the same story; for a while I was actually writing both a film and play at the same time, even though both projects were quite different from each other. The film version was set in Los Angeles, but the play version arose from Steve’s company, The Civilians, and their process of interviewing people and writing about a community. Steve arranged a trip for him and me to go down to Colombia to see the prison and the pageant and interview prisoners.
NA: How did you approach the women, and what were they like?
JR: Steve was actually a Fulbright [Scholar] when he was younger and lived in Colombia, so he knew the country much better than I did having never been there. He had contacts in the theater community, so he and I and his [associates]—who were a handful of actors—went into the prison. I was [in Bogotá] for two weeks, and during that time we went to the prison three times to watch the pageant and to interview people. We went to the prison early in the morning and stayed all day long. When we could, we would just pull women aside and say, “Will you talk to us?” As it turned out, they were very, very eager to talk. They don’t have anyone to talk to in a lot of cases. So they were very eager to open up to everyone involved. The pageant itself took place over several days; for us, each day was an eight-hour day that consisted of watching this pageant unfold in the hot sun.
NA: What did the pageant mean for the women, in your observation? Obviously it’s different for each of them, but how in general did it affect them?
JR: The idea of the pageant is to celebrate the Virgin of Mercy [a 13th century apparition of the Virgin Mary]. The Virgin of Mercy was celebrated over the month of September with all kinds of performances and musical guests, and the pageant was the climax of that celebratory month. For a lot of the women, the pageant gets them doing little things, on a very basic level, that make time go faster. In some cases, it’s fun for them – there is a lot of dancing and costumes, and they all receive lessons in walking, speaking and posture. For some of them, it was a way of being part of something bigger. The pageant is set up such that each cell block competes against each other. At its best, it’s supposed to foster all this teamwork between the women – friends or even rivals. Part of the way a contestant wins is judged by the enthusiasm of her cell block, so women are encouraged to scream, shout and beat drums to support their candidate. Of course there are also women who we talked to who looked very askance at the pageant, who wondered why the prison was wasting time on this frivolous activity when it could be spending more time educating and rehabilitating women and providing books.
Artists are able to express the inexpressible and talk about things that are hidden, dark or forbidden to speak about.
NA: Why is it important to you to tell this story at the Goodman at this time?
JR: That’s a great question and, actually, several women asked me that while I was down there. The whole point of good theater is to give voice to those who don’t have a voice and to articulate whatever is in the air in that society at the time. Artists are able to express the inexpressible and talk about things that are hidden, dark or forbidden to speak about or that nobody wants to know. Raising consciousness as to who these women are, and being able to portray them as three-dimensional human beings (and not the clichés of a hooker, a mule and those sorts of things) is, to me, incredibly valid.