Theater / Film

Review: Miami New Drama’s ‘Dangerous Days’ Loses Its Focus

Written By Michelle F. Solomon
April 9, 2024 at 10:23 AM

Krystal Millie Valdes, left, as Anna and Caitlin Clouthier as Edna Buchanan in Nicholas Griffin’s “Dangerous Days,” a world premiere play at Miami New Drama in the Colony Theatre, Miami Beach, through Sunday, April 28. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Miami New Drama’s newest world premiere, “Dangerous Days,” is drawn from part of a dense, 33-chapter, almost 250-page book with a title that suggests its scope: “The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees and Cocaine in Miami 1980.”

Author Nicholas Griffin begins his 2020 non-fiction bestseller by stating in the prologue “this is a book based on interviews and public records.” He focused on Miami in 1980 because it was a pivotal year for the young city – as Michel Hausmann, artistic director of Miami New Drama points out in program notes, “Our city is merely 127 years young . . . compared to the centuries-old stories of New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles.”

Stephen Trovillion, center, as the medical examiner Dr. Ron, with Jovon Jacobs as Bobby, Roderick Randle as Arthur McDuffie, Krystal Millie Valdes as the defense attorney and Rene Granado as police officer Vivic in Miami New Drama’s “Dangerous Days.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

Griffin’s book dissects a year where a mashup of social change was converging so fast that it was hard to keep up:  More than 100,000 Cubans arrived in the Mariel boatlift;  Colombian drug traffickers were shooting and killing each other in broad daylight; and the death of Arthur McDuffie, a Black insurance salesman who police claimed was horrifically injured when his motorcycle crashed at the end of a chase on Dec. 17, 1979, left the city reeling.

What happened in the aftermath of that fateful chase weaves in and out of the book along with stories of Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan. She was the journalist who doggedly dug into inconsistencies in the cops recounting of what happened to McDuffie. Her reporting and an investigation landed some of the officers on trial. They were acquitted, a final domino that led to three days of rioting in Miami.

[RELATED: See Christine Dolen’s Preview of “Dangerous Days”]

Griffin’s book dives feet-first into how all of these factors led to a tinderbox. But the play culled from the book that Griffin worked on with Miami New Drama has trouble finding its footing – it just never lands on solid ground as a piece of theater.

Developing new plays is courageous and significant. Griffin, a first-time playwright who envisioned his book as a movie has ended up with a somewhat flawed play. The fatal flaw? It suffers from an identity crisis.

Caitlin Clouthier as Edna Buchanan in Buchanan’s signature pantsuit look by costume designer Celeste Jennings. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

“Dangerous Days” contains two character studies jockeying for attention.  There’s the no-holds-barred reporter Buchanan (played by New York-based actress Caitlin Clouthier), whose lively personality has been amped up for theatricality’s sake. Here she comes across like a zany Rosalind Russell in the 1940s newspaper movie gem “His Girl Friday” rather than a future Pulitzer Prize-winning, self-taught journalist who worked the police beat for 18 years and conveyed so much of Miami’s essence in her stories.

The other major character study is of McDuffie (Roderick Randle), who narrates his own death and afterlife in “Dangerous Days.”

Another flaw is the play’s double standard. Granted, in the newsrooms of the early ‘80s, not an eye was batted when an editor referred to a female reporter as “Sweet Cheeks,” exactly the phrase that the play’s fictional editor Larry (Stephen Trovillion) tosses around in reference to Buchanan. But things get cringeworthy at the end of Act II when that same editor tells the audience that he thought of asking Buchanan out on a date when she first arrived in the newsroom, then shares that he was warned by a colleague that “if her pager went off during a hand job, you’d be on your own. . . .”

Caitlin Clouthier as Edna and Caleb Scott as police captain Marshall Frank in Nicholas Griffin’s “Dangerous Days.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

The comic interludes, meant to add levity, only dilute the seriousness of what’s happening. In a play that deals with racial justice, sexism seems sorely out of place.

Anna the intern (Krystal Mille Valdes) is introduced early on – she’s a plot device for Buchanan to have someone to share dialogue with. But the reveal in Act III adds another layer to the question: Is this Buchanan’s story or McDuffie’s? And how can so much be told in just a little more than 90 minutes?

“Dangerous Days” needs some work; not unusual for a new play. In the places where “Dangerous Days” is at its best is when Griffin’s attention to detail comes through – the knowledge he shows from the research he’s done on the McDuffie incident and the way he has Buchanan describe how she approaches a story.

Jovon Jacobs as Bobby lifts weights as his friend from the past Arthur McDuffie (Roderick Randle) watches. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

The captivating actors and director Jen Wineman are topnotch, as is the standard for Miami New Drama.

All of the actors except for Clouthier as Buchanan and Randle as McDuffie play multiple roles.

Scott shows the most range of those playing several roles going from a drunk, fried-chicken demanding bully to police captain to prosecutor. Jovon Jacobs as McDuffie’s friend Bobby wears his heart on his sleeve, while Rene Granado plays Vivic, the first police officer to come forward, as tough as nails. Trovillion as Dr. Ron, the medical examiner who smokes a pipe shaped like a skull, is engaging as well as when he’s the Miami Beach curmudgeon with a Burdine’s bag who gives Buchanan a piece of his mind. Valdes brings to Anna a wide-eyed innocence and wisdom to boot, then in another scene becomes unrecognizable as a bespectacled defense attorney hellbent on getting her way.

From left, Stephen Trovillion as Larry, Caitlin Clouthier as Edna, Krystal Millie Valdes as Anna, Roderick Randle as Arthur McDuffie, and Jovon Jacobs as Bobby on Tim Mackabee’s set for Miami New Drama’s world premiere play “Dangerous Days.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

The Miami Herald newsroom, which doubles as police headquarters, is wonderfully executed for the time period by set designer Tim Mackabee enhanced by the throwback era prop design by Ana Maria Morales. Kudos to costume designer Celeste Jennings for capturing Buchanan’s love for pantsuits along with wig designer Carol Raskin whose different styles help create individuality for the multiple cast of supporting characters. Lighting designer Marie Yokoyama casts Miami 1980 in a blue haze, then ignites menacing red fire outside the building when the city is under siege. Co-sound design by Bailey Trierweiler, Daniela Hart, and Noel Nichols of Uptown Sound captures the era.

Miami New Drama had much success when it focused on 1980s Miami with 2019’s “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy,” working then with Billy Corben who created the 2006 documentary “Cocaine Cowboys,” and pairing him with playwright Aurin Squire.

“Cocaine Cowboys” was serious and dangerous. That’s something that the translation of “Dangerous Days” from page to stage lost along the way.

WHAT: “Dangerous Days” by Nicholas Griffin

WHERE: Miami New Drama production at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through April 28

COST: $46.50, $66.50, $69.50, $76.50, $83.50 

INFORMATION:  305-674-1040 or miaminewdrama.org

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