Héctor Buitrago Scores Prison Beauty Pageant Play 'Another Word for Beauty'

Liz Lauren
Composer Héctor Buitrago in rehearsal for "Another Word for Beauty."

Another Word For Beauty premieres at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre with music by Aterciopelados co-founder.

Héctor Buitrago is known for writing and performing music that champions social causes and creates awareness about the environment. Since the 1990s, as one half of the Colombian duo Aterciopelados and with his solo work, he’s been instrumental in redefining Latin music with songs that defy stereotypes of Latino culture.

Buitrago is not really the type of guy you’d expect to find at a beauty pageant.

But the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter recently attended one in Bogotá. That makes more sense when you know that Buitrago was commissioned to write songs for the new play Another Word for Beauty, which centers around a beauty pageant designed to motivate and rehabilitate inmates held in a Colombian women’s prison.

The play, which features a live band on stage, debuts at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre on Jan. 16. 

Another Word for Beauty was written by José Rivera, the Obie-winning playwright and screenwriter of The Motorcycle Diaries, who interviewed inmates at Bogotá’s Buen Pastor prison in order to tell their stories. The result sounds a bit like a cross between Orange is the New Black and Narcos.

“One of the constants among the reasons they are in prison is men,” Buitrago relates during a phone interview from Bogotá. “They’ve introduced them into narco-trafficking or burglaries, or they are there for crimes of passion. Being involved in narco-trafficking is a common reason for their sentence.”

Seven of Buitrago’s songs, plus instrumental interludes and background music, are featured in the play.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it a musical,” he says. “But since the work portrays a beauty contest in the prison, there’s a lot of music. The presentation of each pageant contestant is accompanied by music, so that is why music is an important part of the play.”

Buitrago says the songs he’s written sound “similar to Aterciopelados' mix of folklore and rock.

“There’s a fusion of rock with ranchera, a little vallenato and cumbia, urban music,” he explains. “There’s a bit of all that because each inmate, each contestant in the beauty pageant, comes from a different place, and she’s accompanied by music that reflects where she’s from.”

Buitrago admits the songs were challenging for some of the actresses.

“Even though the play is in English, the lyrics are in Spanish,” he says. “A lot of the actresses are Latina but they don’t speak Spanish very well, so they have had to reunite with their roots in these roles.”

Buitrago describes music he composed for Another Word For Beauty as “dreamlike.”

“A beauty pageant in a prison is a very surreal thing, “ he adds.