“It will still feel like a documentary, but told through fewer, more centralized characters,” says Michel Hausmann, artistic director of Miami New Drama. “We like to take the idea that theater is immediate and necessary art and part of the conversation, especially within the local community.”
And what better local community story is there to tell than one about the blood-soaked, Wild West-style drug kingpins of the '70s and '80s that reshaped Miami into what it is today?
The idea came about through conversations between Hausmann and Corben, who are good friends. Since the Colony Theatre and Rakontur’s production offices are a mere block from each other in South Beach, the two men occasionally meet for drinks and food and to generally shoot the shit about future projects while people-watching on Lincoln Road.
“We meet for happy hour, and in conversation we throw different ideas at each other,” Hausmann says. “And one day Billy tells me that he’s been wanting to do a stage production of Cocaine Cowboys.”
Miami New Drama seems tailor-made to convert Cocaine Cowboys into a play. The theater troupe is known for thinking outside the box in terms of how it produces plays and musicals, be it a familiar one such as Our Town or more obscure works such as Golem of Havana. Miami New Drama’s productions are also immersive experiences, such as when audiences were left to decide the fate of the protagonist of the courtroom drama Terror via a voting system at the conclusion of the play. Other future projects include turning the Colony Theatre stage into a wrestling ring. It’s this disparate and uncommon approach to theater that makes Miami New Drama uniquely qualified to bring a beloved documentary such as Cocaine Cowboys to the stage without turning it into a farce of itself.
“We’re sticking to the source material,” Hausmann assures. “The vision is to produce something that will speak to our community but also have it become a universal story, because our goal is to have the stage version to eventually be a part of the national repertory of plays.”
Since the project is in its very early stages, Hausmann and Corben have yet to commission a writer for the play. But the vision of what it will be is slowly coming together.
The documentary uses old news footage, photos, and interviews, but the play will be more character-driven while keeping the essence of what Cocaine Cowboys is all about. That essence, Hausmann says, is the way Miami was transformed into the city it has become via the ultraviolent Miami drug trade of the '80s and the fascinating characters who made up the so-called cocaine cowboys.
“We are approaching this [thinking], How can we tell the story in the most direct and most theatrical way?” Hausmann says.
Hausmann and Corben will probably have the story focus on Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, a central figure in Cocaine Cowboys and its sequel, Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin’ With the Godmother. Ayala, a stone-faced trigger man for the cocaine cartel, is serving life in prison for three murders and is suspected of 35 murders in all. Both documentaries show Ayala telling detailed and matter-of-fact horror stories of how he worked as a henchman for the cartel, particularly for the infamous drug kingpin Griselda Blanco.
Ayala’s Everyman persona is striking and something Hausmann and Corben know can make for a fascinating protagonist.
“Rivi feels like the kind of guy you can have a beer with but also the guy who’ll kill you and your family with no change of emotion,” Hausmann says. “This idea that monsters are human is really captured in Rivi in a very frightening way. Someone with 30-plus kills seems like a guy you can hang out with? How can we explore humanity through that duality?”
Cocaine Cowboys the play is still in the idea stage, but Hausmann and Corben hope to announce an opening-night date in May 2018 and debut it in spring 2019.
“Billy and I are really excited about this idea,” Hausmann says. “He is a really fascinating artist. We really care about the work, and Billy and [his Rakontur partner] Alfred Spellman are ideal collaborators.”