Yes, it is set in a women’s prison where at least some of the inmates have committed drug-related crimes. But no, “Another Word for Beauty,” Jose Rivera’s world premiere play-with-music, which begins previews Jan. 16 at the Goodman Theatre, should not be taken as the Colombian equivalent of “Orange is the New Black.”

To begin with, it promises to be both a whole lot darker and, in its bittersweet way, a whole lot more celebratory. Set in El Buen Pastor (The Good Shepherd), a former convent that once housed “young ladies in trouble” (ie. pregnant and unmarried), but was later transformed into a maximum security prison for women, the play chronicles two crucial days in that Bogota facility as all the preparations for the annual parade of floats and beauty contest unfold. And no, this is not fiction.

‘ANOTHER WORD FOR BEAUTY’

When: In previews; opens Jan. 25 and runs through Feb. 21

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $25 – $75

Info: (312) 443-3800; www.GoodmanTheatre.org

Recently, while overseeing rehearsals, in collaboration with director Steve Cosson (head of The Civilians, the New York-based company devoted to investigative theater and strengthening the connections between art and society), Rivera recounted his path to writing the play.

“It really dates back to 2009 when Steve [Cosson] spent a year in Colombia on a Fulbright Fellowship,” said Rivera, the author of such plays as “Cloud Tectonics,” “Boleros for the Disenchanted,” and “Marisol,” and the recipient of an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay for “The Motorcycle Diaries,” the 2004 film about the young revolutionary, Che Guevara.

“Steve heard about the prison while he was living there, and then, in 2009, he contacted me about creating a musical show based on the beauty pageant which has been staged there for many years. It would be rooted in The Civilians’ style, meaning it would be based on interviews done with the inmates, guards and others. So I joined with Steve, and we were able to get the Goodman Theatre to co-commission the work, and to raise the funding for a research trip to Colombia for Steve, myself and five members of The Civilians. And after a great many stressful negotiations to gain entrance to the prison, we were permitted to attend the pageant, which is held in late September.”

As Rivera explained it, the beauty contest is the culmination of the Virgin Mary Pageant which takes its name from the patron saint of those who do not have their freedom. But in this prison that holds twice as many inmates (more than 2,000) than its designated maximum, entertainment is more crucial than religion.

Director Steve Cosson and playwright Jose Rivera, at work on "Another Word for Beauty."

Director Steve Cosson and playwright Jose Rivera, at work on “Another Word for Beauty.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

“There are many different cell blocks in the prison, and in a way it can be seen as a mini cross-section of Colombian society,” said Rivera. “There are petty thieves and white-collar criminals, there are leftist/communist political prisoners held there for many years for treason, and there are many sentenced for drug crimes — women who were used as ‘mules,’ or who drove a car for their boyfriends. The women are allowed to keep their children with them until they turn three, and during the pageant we saw toddlers swarming around the stage, while the guards, both male and female, were on duty with machine guns and dogs.”

“The prison is very depressing — dirty, loud and full of a sense of chaos,” said Rivera, who was never permitted to see the actual cells. “Many of the women looked like they’d been eating bad food, had no exercise, and weren’t particularly healthy, with broken teeth, and scars on their faces. But some were beautiful. And the contestants in the pageant — representatives of each cell block — really train for the event. Of course Colombia is a country obsessed with beauty pageants in general. They’ve got one for everything — even a Miss Mango — and the joke is that the only title not handed out is Miss Cocaine.”

Composer Hector Buitrago (in blue hoodie), with music director Mike Pryzygoda, in rehearsal for "Another Word for Beauty" at the Goodman Theatre. | Photo: Liz Lauren

Composer Hector Buitrago (in blue hoodie), with music director Mike Pryzygoda, in rehearsal for “Another Word for Beauty” at the Goodman Theatre. | Photo: Liz Lauren

The construction of parade floats is a massive effort.

“Each cell block makes one from whatever they can find — trash, styrofoam cups, rags, old wheelchairs,” said Rivera. “They are paraded around a big prison courtyard, where the inmates seat on bleachers — a sort of big outdoor theater. The following day there are the two pageants — one for women 45 or older, and the other for the younger ones, although we have just one contest.”

“All kinds of musicians come from the outside come for the events, from mariachi bands to singers of love duets,” Rivera continued. “But for the play, Steve was lucky enough to be put in contact with Hector Buitrago, the front man for Aterciopelados [the Grammy Award-winning Colombian Latin alternative band, whose original compositions will be played live by Ruben Gonzalez, Mike Przygoda, Diego Salcedo and Javier Saume]. Choreographer Maija Garcia is devising what Rivera described as “the highly sexualized traditional and hip-hop dance sequences.”

The 11 person cast for “Another Word for Beauty” is comprised largely of Latina actresses from New York. Stephanie Andrea Barron and Yunuen Pardo are the only two Chicago-based Latinas, with many others already claimed for “2666,” the epic show based on Chilean writer Roberto Bolano’s novel, set to open in February on the Goodman’s Owen stage.

“At the prison we conducted interviews with 70 women,” said Rivera. “We also did a writing workshop with them. The exercise was to write a ‘goodbye scene’ and read it out loud. They did it too well. The results were heartbreaking. Everyone was in tears.”

.... (from left), ....., and ..... rehearsing "Another Word for Beauty" at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Heather Velazquez (from left), Carmen Zilles and Zoë Sophia Garcia rehearsing “Another Word for Beauty” at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)