| Culture |

Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy Could Take Rakontur to the Big Time

Nicholas Richberg (left), Zilah Mendoza, Yancey Arias, and Stephen G. Anthony in Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy.
Nicholas Richberg (left), Zilah Mendoza, Yancey Arias, and Stephen G. Anthony in Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy.
Fran Beaufrand
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When filmmaker Billy Corben was putting together the 2006 crime documentary Cocaine Cowboys, he came across an epic document. It was a deposition from Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, a former hitman for Miami drug queen Griselda Blanco. At a whopping 1,300 pages, Ayala's testimony walked authorities through the bloodshed of his career.  

“I remember reading the deposition, which is practically a 1,300-page monologue about the death and destruction of the cocaine wars in Miami of the 1980s,” Corben says. “I remember reading it in 2004 thinking, This would make one hell of a one-man show, or you can sit some actors down and just like Love Letters-style read the thing at a table, and it would be riveting theater.”

Corben pocketed the idea and finished Cocaine Cowboys. The documentary became a smash hit, and Hollywood eventually came calling. Corben teamed up with a few power producers to turn his film into a TV series. There was just one problem.

“They kept engaging writers from out West, and no one was able to nail it,” Corben says. “They were bringing on some of these established TV writers, but none of them are from Miami. Some of them had never been here before. Some of them had never seen Scarface before!”

Corben took issue with the team’s inauthentic creative process, which included Cuban characters using Mexican gang slang. The series got stuck in development, an industry term for when a project struggles to go into production. Through a mutual friend, Corben met someone who rekindled his interest in bringing Ayala’s story to the stage.

“When Billy started the movie in 2004, he started uncovering an unknown moment in time for Miami,” says Michel Hausmann, cofounder of the theater company Miami New Drama. “And now, 15 years later, that story is in the DNA of everyone. So the question is, in 2019, with the country the way it is now, how can we look back at the past?”

Yancey Arias and Zilah Mendoza in Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy.EXPAND
Yancey Arias and Zilah Mendoza in Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy.
Fran Beaufrand

Hausmann pushed Corben to commit himself to this play, but the filmmaker was reluctant. Because of Corben's busy schedule, the duo became a trio when they enlisted playwright-turned-This Is Us writer Aurin Squire to flesh out the story. Born and raised in Miami, Squire is the kind of writer Corben could have used when developing Cocaine Cowboys for television. The two drafted a script, with Hausmann directing.

The makers of Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy plan on telling a story that’s authentic to its source material while simultaneously subverting the narco subgenre. They want to have their coke and snort it too.

“Maybe Cocaine Cowboys opened the door for a lot of narco stories, but we hope this play is in a way the Don Quixote,” Hausman says, referencing the 17th-century parody of knighthood. “Don Quixote came in and it sort of made fun of the genre at the same time as advancing the genre. And after that, there couldn’t be another.”

In putting the stage show together, Corben hasn't lost hope for a Cocaine Cowboys TV series further down the line.

“This is a good opportunity to do a backdoor pilot for a pilot, meaning this could be our proof of concept for a potential dramatic TV series,” Corben says. “What better place to incubate that than here in Miami?”

Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy. Previews begin Thursday, March 7. Premieres Saturday, March 16, and runs through Sunday, April 7, at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; 800-211-1414; colonymb.org. Tickets cost $39 to $79.

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