The Points Interview: Michelle Drozdick

Editor’s Note: Today we interview the playwright and performer Michelle Drozdick, who is a self-described “comedian, improviser, performer, and cat lover moonlighting as a human being.” She is best known for her solo shows Message in a Bottle and The Gimmick and You. She’s performed at countless theaters across NYC, is on too many improv teams to keep track of, and would love for you to follow her on Twitter at @drozphallic. Message in a Bottle will have a three-run show at QED Theater in Astoria, Queens, from 8/18 to 8/20, all at 7pm. In anticipation of these performances, we talked to Drozdick about the mysteries of talking penguins, personifying objects, and what it’s like to love a bottle of vodka.

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Michelle Drozdick

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer and performer. When they ask you what your play is about, how do you answer?

First I’d chat with the penguin, because how often do you meet a talking penguin? I’d love to know how it came to talk, and if it’s the only one of its kind or if there’s more. If it’s the only one of its kind, is it lonely? Does it have trouble interacting with other penguins? If there are more, what kind of society do they have? Why is it hanging out with nuns? Is it because they’re both black and white, or is the penguin religious? Are there Catholic penguins? What is their view of the afterlife?

Once I got past the penguin thing, and apologized to the nuns for overlooking them, I’d tell them Message in a Bottle is a dark comedy/drama about alcoholism, portrayed as a romantic relationship between a woman and a self-aware bottle of vodka with googly eyes, plastic forks for arms, and a necktie. I’d warn the nuns that it can get a little adult at times, but nothing stronger than a PG-13 rating, tell them the show covers the first date all the way to what comes after the “end,” then offer them all comped tickets.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

I love exploring the personification of objects in art, especially over time. It’s really interesting to see how we portray inanimate things that don’t actually have thoughts or personalities based on attributes of our own culture and society. I recently saw a great engraving by John Warner Barber from the 1820s called “King Alcohol, and his Prime Minister,” and there are lots of wonderful cartoons from the Prohibition-era (and the time leading up to it) that portray alcohol as an actual person wreaking havoc.

My show is a definitely inspired by this sort of art, and I spent a lot of time reading up on these older portrayals of alcohol, while trying to adapt it to a modern-day, personal story.

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Review: “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy”

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. 

Screenshot 2019-05-07 at 8.13.59 AMFor 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.