New York-based actress Socorro Santiago anchors the cast of José Rivera’s Another Word for Beauty as Ciliana, a sixtysomething “feisty prisoner with mischievous eyes, a real prison busybody,” who’s also “an intense survivor,” as the character is described by the script. As the play begins, Ciliana serves as a host of sorts, providing audiences with a crash course on the inner workings of Buen Pastor and its annual beauty pageant. Ciliana, who has a knack for predicting the pageant’s winner each year, appears throughout the play, delivering commentary on the action, singing about life in prison and introducing various other inmates.

Santiago has worked with Rivera extensively throughout her career, appearing in productions of his plays The Promise, Boleros for the Disenchanted and Adoration for an old Woman at theaters across the country. She also participated in workshops of Another Word for Beauty at the Goodman leading up to this world premiere production. Below, Santiago discusses her relationship with Rivera and her experience of bringing such a unique character to life.

José Rivera and I go way, way back. It’s been quite a ride. I hear music in José’s words when I read his works. It just flies off the page. When I was reading Another Word for Beauty, I thought, “This is a different kind of music.” Each character is unique and has such an individual sound. This character is staccato, one has legato, another is jazz, this one is cumbia. The challenge is to let José’s words stand on their own. It’s human and when you let go, it soars. You must trust his words the way you trust Brecht, Shakespeare and Chekov. That’s why José is my Shakespeare.

It’s fitting that José’s writing is so lyrical because in this play we have wonderful music composed by the great Colombian musician Héctor Buitgrao. The songs he composed are almost other worldly. There’s nothing else like it. It’s the music of the woods, of the forests of Colombia. When I heard the songs, some of them sounded like laments, some sounded like invocations, some sounded religious (but not in a way of singing a psalm or being at mass). It was natural sounding, just like being out in nature. There is a lullaby in the play, and when I heard that instantly I said, “This man has kids.” It’s music of the heart; it’s magnificent and heartbreaking, especially given the scene when it is performed.

Telling these incarcerated women’s stories is challenging. In this play, these women are in such a dark situation, but there is still a hopeful beacon of life. I once read a quote, “It’s with curiosity I seek new work, because that to me defines potential hope.” We never lose our curiosity. How innovative, how ingenious is it that these women, who are working to stage the beauty pageant the center of the play by creating floats and costumes, can take simple things we take for granted and make them into something incredible? We might say, “Oh, no, that’s aluminum foil, I use that to wrap stuff or cook.” But they can make a dress out of it. They can take toilet paper and turn it into an ingenious hat!

Telling these incarcerated women’s stories is challenging. In this play, these women are in such a dark situation, but there is still a hopeful beacon of life.

My character Ciliana is fascinating. She has been in the prison for almost all of her life. There’s a wonderful monologue where she discusses how all the women in the prison became like her mothers and her family. Isn’t a family what we all want to some degree? Whether you’re married or not, family can change and empower you. She sort of guides the audience along throughout the work and introduces many of the characters. She’s not just functioning like an emcee though. She’s magical. She’s in the audience watching the pageant with the audience saying, “Now you’re with me, now we’re on the same plane!” But at the same time she’s telling the audience, “You don’t know shit, not yet, at least. You think you know, but you don’t.” A lot of folks are going to bring in their preconceived notions about life in prison to the play, especially what a beauty pageant taking place in one would be like, and I did that as well when I first read it. I don’t know that Ciliana would exist in the outside world. Or if she did you might see her as a homeless woman, one who pushes that shopping cart filled with stuff. She’s there but for the grace of God.

I participated in two workshops of the play leading up to this world premiere production. I was just so excited to be involved with these workshops. I got to work with Chicago actors, people I had heard of, people I was in awe of. The women are such individuals and I relish that. When they started performing the dances, they just tore it up. They were incredible! I sat there watching with my mouth open going, “Wow. Just wow.”

A long time ago, I asked many actors what they hope to experience from theater. Some said they wanted to be entertained, illuminated, transformed or learn something they did not know before. I hope this play does that. When I go to see theater, I look to believe. I saw Glenn Close on Inside the Actors Studio and she said that she looks to change the molecules in the theater. How cool is that?

I can only hope that we do the same with Another Word for Beauty.