How do we define beauty? By most standards, “beauty” is largely an external phenomenon, the quality of being physically attractive—although the standards of physical beauty may vary greatly from culture to culture and generation to generation. Webster’s Dictionary contains a second definition for the word, one that encompasses not only one’s outer being but the mind and soul as well: the qualities in a person that give pleasure to the senses or the mind. Thus, “beauty” can encompass the physical perfection of a Hollywood starlet or the humanitarian spirit of someone like Eleanor Roosevelt, the gritty determination of a world leader or the towering intellect of a Nobel laureate. This definition can apply, too, to people in less lofty situations: a single mother struggling to raise her children in the face of grinding poverty, an idealistic guerrilla striving to bring justice to a society in which little exists, or a former prostitute ardently pursuing a life of greater hope, greater opportunity and greater self-respect.
José Rivera’s magnificent new play Another Word for Beauty takes us to a world populated with women facing similar situations and where the mere concept of “beauty” may seem to be absurdly out of place: the Buen Pastor women’s prison in Bogotá, Colombia, an institution that houses offenders from all sectors of society, from streetwalkers and murderers to political dissidents. Most of the time, the residents of Buen Pastor endure all of the dangers and indignities that accompany incarceration; for a few days each year, however, that grim setting becomes a place of celebration, transformation and hope, as the prisoners take part in a ritual more commonly seen on the boardwalk of Atlantic City: the beauty pageant. Replete in costumes constructed from whatever materials are at hand in the prison, contestants representing each cell block, or patio, vie to be crowned winner of the pageant, the culmination of a month-long celebration honoring the Virgin of Mercy, an apparition of the Virgin Mary. In recent years, this unlikely event has become something of a cultural phenomenon, televised nationally and judged by TV personalities, soccer stars and other celebrities. Fueling the excitement of the event itself are the entrants themselves, women from all walks of Colombian life for whom a victory may be the only bright moment in a life too often marked by poverty, brutality, marginalization and destruction—winning the pageant results in a tantalizing instant of public glory in a place of frequent punishment and suffering.
Co-commissioned by the Goodman and The Civilians—a remarkable New York-based company that creates provocative theatrical art out of real-life events—Another Word for Beauty is much more than the chronicle of an unlikely annual ritual. Rivera’s narrative takes us into the hearts and souls of Buen Pastor’s residents, creating indelible portraits of the women who hope so fervently to be anointed this year’s winner. Driven by Héctor Buitrago’s infectious score and staged by The Civilians’ artistic director, Steve Cosson, Another Word for Beauty is a raucous, moving and often exhilarating trip to a world that few of us have visited—and a work that reveals images of beauty, physical and otherwise, that none of us have ever imagined.