Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Elaine Carey, professor of history and Dean of the College of Humanities, Education, and Social Sciences at Purdue University Northwest, and a regular contributor to Points. Today she reviews a recent theatrical production that should be of interest to drug scholars.
For this dope scholar, a recent trip to Miami would not have been complete without catching the play Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy at the Colony Theatre in South Beach, which opened on March 7, 2019 and closed on April 7, 2019. Written by Billy Corben and Aurin Squire and directed by Michael Hausman, the play is based on the docudramas Cocaine Cowboys (2006) and Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin with the Godmother (2008), which chronicled the Miami Drug wars and the lives of Griselda Blanco and her assassin Jorge “Rivi” Ayala.
The star of the play is Yancey Arias, who portrays Rivi and delves into the character showcasing aspects of Rivi not previously mentioned in the docudrama. Arias has been in numerous shows, including Kingpin, Queen of the South, Thief, and a host of others. He is joined by an ensemble comprised of Stephen G. Anthony, Rubi Goblen, Andy Mendez, Zillah Mendoza, and Nicolas Richberg. The actors play a host of characters that are familiar to fans of Cocaine Cowboys, Richard Smitten’s book The Godmother, and Max Mermelstein’s memoir The Man who Made it Snow.
The play, the theatre, and Miami now officially hail that the city recognizes itself as the capital of Latin America and the city that cocaine built. The chronicling of that era in Confessions and Cocaine Cowboys by Corben and Squire have changed how Miami tells its own history.
The play tackles heady subjects that define Miami, such as corruption, nepotism, race, drugs, and crime. In exchanges between the sonorous Rivi and irritated Detective Vanegas, played by Mendez, the tensions between Cubans and other Latin American immigrants are displayed. As Vanegas epically recounts how he came to the United States, he sees Rivi as an antagonist to the Cuban American heroic story. Colombians sullied the paradise that gave countless Cubans a new place to call home. Rivi positions his life as a tale of opportunities as he pursued the American dream that shifted from Chicago to Miami, and from stealing cars to working as an assassin. He is a chameleon who readily understands power and manipulation, which is what fascinated the authors and the countless fans of Cocaine Cowboys.
Mendoza’s roles as Kathy, Griselda Blanco and Gladys reflect the women in Rivi’s life. Kathy is Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who has been the state attorney for Miami-Dade County since 1993. Her tenure is portrayed as rife with corruption, and Rivi and the other actors regale the audience with tales of her alleged misdeeds. Blanco is Rivi’s boss and a woman who is far more famous today than she was in the early 1980s. Blanco recruited Rivi and he became one of her many assassins. Gladys is Rivi’s wife. Rivi sees only subtle differences between Fernandez Rundle and Blanco. Both women protected their families to ensure success. Like Fernandez Rundle, Blanco was one of few women in a male-dominated field during the 1970s and 1980s. As the highest-ranking woman in the Medellín cartel, she employed violence to ensure her success until Rivi became her nemesis to save himself from the death penalty.
The play is a great romp through a not too distant past. The playbill and opening comments contain the following warning: “gunfire, strobe lights, strong language, violence, blood, and other Florida fuc**ry will be experienced during the performance.” Indeed, it was. Florida of the early 1980s and its drug wars appear almost quaint criminal stories of a distant past similar to Frank Sinatra’s Man with the Golden Arm. Miami Vice, Scarface, and Cocaine Cowboys regale us with the tales of men and a few women in a different era. That era led to the crack epidemic and devastated cities and families. That era appears to pale to the present with access to burner phones, bitcoins, internet banking, militarized policing, and the dark web. Significantly, Corben and Squire recognize that the drug violence of the late 1970s and 1980s led to the escalation of the Drug Wars. Those ongoing wars are directly connected to the loosening of gun laws that have contributed to massacres in Florida (and the rest of the US) and that the drug violence that has criminalized low level dealers and contributed to the mass incarceration of young African Americans and Latinos.
Since the release of the first docudramas in 2006, other films and attempts to tell the story of the Miami drug wars have been made. Catherine Zeta Jones’s Lifetime rendition of Griselda Blanco was a horrible melodrama that remains the only full-length production. Mermestein’s biopic has yet to make it to the big screen, and neither has Rivi’s. Lawsuits and production issues have undermined a cinematic telling of these tales, though there are always options and plans. Like Corben discovered, the future may be in live action, in a small theater in a city that cocaine cowboys and cowgirls helped to erect and expand. Yet, Confessions challenges us to consider the bigger consequences of those events almost forty years ago.