We write plays in order to organize despair and chaos. —José Rivera, in “36 Assumptions About Writing Plays”
There’s a prison in Bogotá, Colombia, called Buen Pastor, that houses more than 2,000 women in facilities meant to hold 1,250. Needless to say, conditions aren’t good. In fact, the Britain-based NGO Justice for Colombia, citing a 2012 report by the Colombian inspector general’s office, has called them “horrendous” and “appalling.” Parts of the complex lack even running water.
But one thing the inmates at Buen Pastor have that their peers at other correctional institutions don’t is their special morale-building program. Each year the prison runs a beauty pageant. Yes, a beauty pageant. The various cell blocks, or patios, pick and primp a representative, who then competes against her fellow convicts—FARC guerrillas and rightist paramilitants, drug mules, prostitutes, murderers, and thieves—for the right to wear a tiara and a sash.
The story pretty much cries out for the stage. There’s the ready-made spectacle of women in bright gowns and Vegas-meets-Inca headdresses, dancing for the judges. The vivid paradoxes of an event that simultaneously ennobles and objectifies its participants, frees and confines them, earns them high TV ratings from a society they can’t join. There are the dark resonances of Colombia’s impossible political situation, marked by a 50-year insurgency, a cocaine-ocracy, and a crippled state. Not least of all there’s the pathos of the garbage-dump flower.
Director Steve Cosson, playwright José Rivera, and composer Héctor Buitrago obviously recognized the potential. Receiving its world premiere now at Goodman Theatre, their musical, Another Word for Beauty, takes on all of the above in two and a half hours. And conscientiously too: according to a program essay by dramaturge Neena Arndt, Cosson recruited a cadre of Colombian theater artists to conduct interviews with inmates and officials alike, and the entire team was present for the 2012 pageant.
But the results fail to do justice to the subject matter. Fail by a long shot, actually. Despite some appealing performances, an intriguingly idiosyncratic score from Buitrago, and the cool minifloats on which the hopefuls ride as they greet their public, Another Word backfires in essential ways.
Much of the problem is structural. Rivera gives us a handful of prisoner/contestants: Nora, the penitent guerrilla; Isabelle, the former rightist sniper; abused little rich girl Xiomara; Yolanda, whose three-year-old son has been taken from her per prison policy; and the dark-skinned putative ugly duckling, Luzmery, who can’t get the hang of runway-height stilettos. These five are surrounded by the reigning Miss Buen Pastor, an ambitious warden, a crotch-pumping male guest celebrity, and such others as Xiomara’s transvestite brother, who happens to be dead. The glue that least theoretically unites them all is Ciliana (the delightful Socorro Santiago), a kind of elderly Latina Puck who pops up everywhere, addressing wise, blunt speeches directly to the audience.
As the easy labeling suggests, each character has a representative story to tell. Thanks to Rivera’s empathic genius, those stories can be compelling—individually. But the pageant narrative into which they’ve been dropped is necessarily predictable—rehearsal, doubts, and biographical speeches during act one, competition, confessions, and bonding during act two—and therefore susceptible to a dulling repetitiveness. Rivera never finds a way out of that trap. On the contrary, he aggravates it by overusing a certain device: though the warden warns the contestants to give innocuous answers to the questions they’re asked during the interview portion of the show, they of course, one by one, break free of decorum to tell some impassioned truth. The cumulative effect is a little like the moment at the end of all those James Brown concerts where he’d be covered by a cape and led away in faux exhaustion, only to run back to the mike stand to sing some more. It’s falsely theatrical and ultimately monotonous.
Worse, it reduces the truth telling to a formula. And that formula reduces the contestants to mouthpieces for sympathetic artists with good intentions. And those good intentions, finally, reduce Another Word for Beauty to an exercise in bourgeois feelgoodism. Rivera and company have organized despair and chaos right out of their play. v