Beauty pageants in Colombia are so prevalent, they're practically a national pastime.
Every town, every community has one. That includes El Buen Pastor, the women's prison in Bogota, whose annual spectacle -- with elaborate costumes, musical production numbers and celebrity judges -- is greeted with the same enthusiasm as any taking place outside the penitentiary walls.
"Another Word for Beauty"When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, from Jan. 16 to Feb. 21. Also 2 p.m. Jan. 28, Feb. 6, 11, 13, 18 and 20; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16. No 7:30 p.m. show Feb. 7 or 21.
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
The tradition inspired "Another Word for Beauty," Obie Award-winner Jose Rivera's fictionalized play with music featuring compositions by Grammy Award-winner Hector Buitrago. It begins previews Saturday, Jan. 16, at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
The world premiere, directed by Steve Cosson, is a co-commission by Goodman Theatre and The Civilians, a New York-based company that creates theatrical works based on real-life events.
The idea came from Cosson, Civilians' artistic director, who was eager for an international collaboration and decided on Colombia, where he had lived years earlier as a Fulbright Scholar.
"A friend of a friend told me about the El Buen Pastor pageant and it seemed like a great idea," he said.
Cosson approached Rivera, whose work he had long admired. Rivera, who knew about the prison pageant, agreed. He did so mainly because the female inmates -- drug traffickers, prostitutes, political dissidents and murderers -- are the kind of marginalized, disenfranchised people Rivera gives voice to in his plays.
"I'm interested in finding a way for those people to be heard ... Theater is a pretty good microphone for that," he said.
It also provides an opportunity to explode negative stereotypes.
"My focus as a writer has been exploration of Latin culture in the U.S. For me one of the biggest issues is stereotyping," Rivera said. "It's easy to stereotype a drug mule, addict or prostitute. Latin American people are stereotyped in the most negative and horrible ways. My goal is to meet stereotypes head on and show the humanity under the surface."
After nine months of negotiations, they received permission to visit the prison in 2011. Cosson, Rivera, Buitrago and a team of Colombian theater artists spent a month interviewing inmates, guards, pageant consultants and officials and experiencing the spectacle for themselves.
"We were surprised how receptive the women were right from the very first day," Cosson said. "They were very open and very eager to talk. One of the women said they don't talk about their lives and their problems with each other because they know everyone in there shares the same problems. They don't burden each other."
But the women found empathetic listeners in Cosson and his colleagues. In return, Cosson and Rivera experienced amazing theater.
"It's so real. They're so invested in making this happen," Cosson said of the pageant -- a spectacle he compares to Carnaval -- that is conjured from recycled, found and donated materials and the inmates' imaginations.
Held during the festival honoring the Virgin of Mercy, patron saint of prisoners, it is essentially a competition between cellblocks, each of which cheers a different candidate.
That expression of community, of people coming together in pursuit of a common goal, is what attracted Cosson and Rivera, who had the daunting task of winnowing about 100 interviews down to a workable narrative.
The characters are composites, said Rivera, but the reasons for their incarceration -- drugs, domestic violence, betrayal, abandonment -- are real.
"I was faithful to those stories," said Rivera, who like Cosson hopes to one day bring a production or staged reading of "Another Word for Beauty" to El Buen Pastor.
Most inmates embrace the pageant. But in a facility where proper nutrition, exercise and mental health counseling are limited, "the magic of it didn't extend to everybody," said Rivera, recalling prisoners unmoved by the spectacle, who sat motionless, dejected.
The play's first staged reading took place during 2013's New Stages Festival at Goodman, which Rivera calls his artistic home. Revised since then, "Another Word for Beauty" now makes explicit the horror of Colombia's long-running civil war, fueled partly by the drug trade. It also incorporates more music and more humor, Rivera said.
"In extreme situations, humor is a survival mechanism," he said. "One way to endure suffering or absurdity and keep your senses about you is through humor."
But while the pageant propels the play, it isn't the point.
"Much more important than the story of the pageant is the lives and the point of view of the characters in the play," Cosson said. "I think we often choose to not think about the people who are incarcerated or to distance ourselves from them. This play is an opportunity to go inside their world and stand in their shoes."