On July 20, 2015, diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were restored. And this past March, President and Michelle Obama visited the island nation. Airlines are scrambling to be approved for flights to Cuba and other companies who profit from tourism are lining up.
What negotiations really happened behind the scenes to bring about normalization of relations? In his new novel, Ghosts of Havana, Todd Moss imagines how it all might have gone down. Names, of course, have been changed, but the plot seems plausible, probably because Moss knows what he’s talking about. Now a senior fellow at a DC think tank, from 2007 to 2008 Moss served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State where he was responsible for diplomatic relations with 16 West African countries. A few weeks before the Obamas landed in Cuba, Moss was there and wrote about his experience in USA Today: “There are constant reminders that Cuba is a totalitarian state,,,[but] I left with the sense that Cuba was on the verge of major transformation.” That’s the Cuba we see in Ghosts of Havana, a country on the brink of change, but still holding onto the ghosts from its past.
This is Moss’s third installment, after Minute Zero and The Golden Hour, starring Judd Ryker, and his wife, Jessica. Formerly a college professor known for “teasing out patterns in data to uncover what was really going on,” Judd was recruited by the State Department to set up a Crisis Reaction Unit. Jessica is a CIA operative good at keeping secrets, even from her husband. The two have just returned from a harrowing assignment in Zimbabwe with a very positive outcome. During that assignment, Jessica apparently came to Judd’s aid and he realized that there was more to his wife than her good looks. (Since I jumped into this series without reading the previous books, more backstory about Judd and Jessica would have helped flesh out the characters.)
What begins as a seemingly innocent fishing trip by four poker buddies turns into an international incident. After their boat, aptly named The Big Pig, leaves U.S. waters, they draw fire from the Cuban army and soon find themselves prisoners being paraded before TV audiences in orange jumpsuits. Two of the men – Alejandro Cabrera and Brinkley Barrymore III – have an agenda that they haven’t shared with their two friends. But when it becomes apparent that those plans have gone awry, their capture places not only their own lives but the future of U.S.- Cuba relations in jeopardy.
Judd’s boss, Langdon Parker, the Secretary of State’s chief of staff, enlists Judd’s help. Yet in this case, as in previous ones, Judd finds himself in over his head. And, once again, he will find himself depending on his wife to get him out of a dangerous situation.
In this husband-wife partnership, Jessica not only has the brains, but also the brawn. She survives being chased and shot at through Florida’s swamps and has no trouble piloting a technically advanced helicopter into enemy territory. All this while taking care of her two young children on a Florida vacation that turns out to be anything but. Talk about multi-tasking!
Judd, meanwhile, should rethink leaving academia. He’s smart but no Jason Bourne or 007. One has to wonder why Parker keeps throwing him into situations where even a skilled operative would have difficulty escaping alive. In the end, that’s part of the appeal of both Judd and Jessica, a couple that turns on its head our thinking about what makes a good spy. Jessica has the grit and experience, but Judd’s naivete and inexperience allow him to gain people’s trust, as he does when he comes face to face with the volatile Oswaldo Guerro, “the Devil of Santiago,” and the power behind Cuba’s president.
There are the requisite shady characters: the CIA head known only as the Director of Operations; tough as nails Congresswoman Brenda Adelman-Zamora; billionaire Ruben Sandoval, with roots in Cuba; and “Ricky,” who is doing more than just renting boats in Marathon, Florida.
Ghosts of Havana is a plot-driven, rather than a character-driven mystery. It’s enough to keep the pages turning – very quickly, in fact – but at the end we feel we hardly know Judd and Jessica or, for that matter, many of the other players in this international drama. Filling in some of those blanks wold elevate what is already a terrific read.
Ghosts of Havana
Top photo: January 11 2016: Typical scene of one of streets in the center of Santiago de cuba – Colorful architecture people walking around and vintage american cars in the roads. Santiago is the 2nd largest city in Cuba. Bigstock photo.
In an October 2014 edition of The New Yorker, Jennifer Gonnerman wrote about sixteen-year-old Bronx resident, Kaleif Browder, who, in the spring of 2010, was sent to Rikers for allegedly stealing a backpack. After three years – two of them in solitary confinement – his case was dropped due to lack of evidence. Kaleif returned home a shattered nineteen-year-old. Two years later he committed suicide. Sadly, Kaleif’s story is not unique.
As the human tragedy that America’s courts have inflicted upon so many of our citizens comes into ugly focus, the call to reform the criminal justice system may be reaching a tipping point. President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan recently went on record vowing to work together on a reform plan during the President’s last year in office. Let’s hope they can.
The United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the prison population, most of them poor, vulnerable and minorities. Shockingly, not even China, with a population four times larger, comes close to our percentages. In fact, according to a recent National Research Council report, the one country whose prison rates are estimated to equal or exceed ours is North Korea.
Arriving at this propitious moment is Baz Dreisinger’s new book, Incarceration Nations. An Associate Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and founder of the innovative Prison-to-College Pipeline program, Dreisinger knows first hand the human faces, and family heartbreak behind the statistics.
In an effort to re-think America’s punitive model of justice, Dreisinger turned a recent sabbatical into a bold quest. She visited prisons in nine countries – Uganda, Rawanda, South Africa, Jamaica, Brazil, Austraila, Thailand, Singapore and Norway – engaging whenever possible with inmates through drama workshops, art and writing classes, and restorative justice programs. She hoped her experience would deliver a shock to her system and help her imagine what true reform might look like. How were other countries managing their prisons? What was working? What was not?
In Thailand she directed women prisoners as they acted out the scenarios that landed many of them in prison: serving as drug mules for their boyfriends. Deep in the Rwanda hillside, she worked with genocide survivors who forgave then welcomed back into the community the perpetrators who, nineteen years ago, slaughtered their neighbors. In Uganda’s notoriously over crowded prison system, where there are no toilets and human beings are crammed together like sardines, she led a writing workshop where inmates wrote about childhoods filled with poverty and abuse. And in Brazil’s Penitenciária Federal de Catanduvas, the country’s first supermax, she met Carlos who compared his solitary confinement (an American export started by Quakers) to the feeling of being buried alive.
Dreisinger’s first person narrative reads, to great effect, like a series of ominous set-ups to a variety of hellish nightmares. In South Africa “the air is el dente” and her hotel room feels like a “royal carriage house” albeit within walking distance of Pollsmoor Prison, one of the most dangerous places on earth. At other times, she disrupts the flow of her thought-provoking narrative with observational platitudes. “Punishment” she writes “is backword looking. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is forward looking.”
Such idealism may make us feel good but the challenges necessary to bring about real change mean confronting messy, complex truths like our history with slavery, prejudice, economic inequality, and the hopelessness all that entails. More instructive is Dreisinger’s Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Society must find a way to guard the safety of its citizens within a justice system that guarantees respect and compassion for the victim while offering perpetrators a realistic path to redemption, not the inhuman treatment that shames all of us who imagine we live in a civilized society.
Dreisinger’s last stop, Norway, is the only true relief to what is, in the end, a very dark journey through deep pockets of abandoned humanity. Norway boasts of its “penal exceptionalism,” where short sentences are the norm, prisons have flat screen televisions, all kinds of classes, wrap around sofas, well-educated correction officers, and very low rates of recidivism. Yet Norway’s inmates caution Dreisinger not to be fooled; despite their surroundings, they are prisoners all the same.
Incarceration Nations is an important book, one that pulls back the curtain on a global human tragedy that, for most of us, is hidden from view. The author’s unique ability to draw out the humanity in even the most troubled of souls reflects the passion and understanding she brings to her work. Her Prison-to-College Pipeline program, like her writing class in Uganda and drama workshop in Thailand, is a beacon of light that illuminates a steping stone on a path to change. One can only hope that if President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan stay true to their vows to begin the long-awaited criminal justice reform, activists like Baz Dreisinger will be invited to take a seat at the table.
Top photo: Colin Williams
Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey – two women who were caught up in the political whirlwind that defined a decade. During the battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Muriel Humphrey was married to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a supporter of the legislation, while Lurleen Wallace was married to Alabama Governor George Wallace who opposed integration. In Arena Stage’s production of the Tony Award-winning play, All the Way, Adrienne Nelson will appear as these two very different women. For Nelson, appearing in Robert Schenkkan’s play has taken her on an historic journey. Muriel was born in the Midwest, and Lurleen, in the south, both would go on to succeed their husbands in office. Muriel would be appointed to her husband’s seat in the Senate after he died, while Lurleen was elected Alabama’s governor after her husband was ineligible to run for reelection.
We asked Adrienne how she prepared for her roles and what she learned about these two women who were married to powerful men at opposite ends of the political spectrum. In a previous story, Susan Rome talked about playing Lady Bird Johnson, and Shannon Dorsey, who will play Coretta Scott King, will be featured in a future story.
None of you actually lived through the Civil Rights battle in the 1960s. What research did you do that helped take you back to that historic time?
As I delved deeper into this explosive chapter in our country’s history, I began with the Humphreys to revisit this time period first through the prism of their experiences and journeys. Hubert Humphrey’s biography The Education of a Public Man My Life and Politics has proven to be very enlightening as well as footage from Hubert H. Humphrey The Art of the Possible. I watched the PBS documentary on George Wallace as well as the John Frankenheimer film based on Marshall Frady’s ’96 biography Wallace: The Classic Portrait of Alabama Governor George Wallace. Side note: my husband actually worked on the film in L.A. under co-producer and family friend, former head of casting for CBS Ethel Winant. He did all sorts of things for the production large and small though always remembers having to read the big MLK speech during an early table read with just the principals at the Ambassador Hotel. My husband, Ian Armstrong, is not African American and of course has such incredible respect for Dr. King so was a bit wary of reading it to say the least.Though when they shared they really needed to just hear it for the rhythm/pacing and thanks to Mr. Sinise’s encouragement (Gary Sinese starred in the film as Wallace), he gave it his best shot. Side note #2, I have read that George Wallace did NOT approve of many parts of this film.
Although I’ve found articles, letters, recordings, videos, documentaries, and photographs to be extremely useful, I also have enjoyed rewatching Selma, Mississippi Burning and The Long Walk Home to remember and revisit different interpretations of this chapter. Just like Schenkkan’s All the Way, they are not documentaries. I find it can still be extremely productive for an actor to imagine the private moments and conversations that were not captured – and these films smartly fill in/offer up many possibilities of what dialogue might have been shared behind closed doors before different pivotal moments in history. I can’t wait for Mr. Schennkan to write an epic play about President Obama’s time at the White House. Can we make this happen?
As our inspiring and visionary director Kyle Donnelly has encouraged/reminded us, it is often most useful and revealing to see what happens before and after an iconic photograph is taken and speech is made and legacy is set. Some of my most treasured pieces of research have been seeing glimpses of Muriel Humphrey (and Lurleen Wallace, the MFDP – Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party – members, and LBJ’s secretaries) before during and after an iconic and historic shot was taken and also on film thanks to (for Muriel) Ladybird’s home videos! There’s some great raw footage of the Humphreys at the ranch in ’55 that foreshadow and reveal more than 100 articles could.
The Humphreys – Adrienne Nelson and Richard Clodfelter
There are also wonderful recordings of Muriel talking to LBJ on the phone and a video of Muriel’s first day as a Senator (albeit from a time later in her life) that provide some character gold and connective tissue.
I’m also so very grateful to the beautiful and generous guidance and expertise of Arena’s Literary Manager Linda Lombardi for leading us to the most reputable and revealing resources to better understand the complexities, nuances, personalities involved in the MFDP, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Freedom Summer, Congress of Racial Equality, NAACP, and other groups and turning points during this movement, especially the timelines and interconnections and challenges/divisions between some of the groups.
What did you learn that surprised you the most?
I was actually most surprised by the game/”dance with the devil” that politicians had to play publicly and privately to serve and champion their (and their constituents’) interests and to get anything done/passed. I love that Schenkkan’s play allows us to viscerally experience up close the public dance, personal sacrifices, professional compromises and private moments (the latter where a little of the actual truth and beliefs are shared), to better understand the players involved, the scapegoats, the lesser known allies, the egos, and the pros and cons of getting power and becoming addicted to what it affords/promises/entices. I’ve lived in DC for 20 years. I perhaps should not be surprised. I have lived among many of the players. During various chapters of my life in the city, I have taught their children. I’ve served them food. I’ve performed for them. I’ve produced events with them. I’ve overheard them revealing their honest thoughts at local watering holes. They’ve told me outright at local watering holes what they really want/feel/how they have to do it/make it happen! But I was still surprised when reading what many people (during the Civil Rights Movement and especially LBJ and MLK) had to endure for the greater good- or their greater good.
Lurleen and George Wallace
Even hard working and kind hearted Muriel Humphrey realized what the power of the first lady could allow. I was also surprised to learn of so much of the Lurleen Wallace story. I knew she had become the first female governor of Alabama though didn’t realize that her doctor and George knew of signs of cancer years before they told her and began treatment that could have saved her life. I knew that George had a bit of a “come to Jesus” at the end of his life though didn’t realize (until after further research) that he awarded the Lurleen Wallace Award of Courage to Vivian Malone, one of the African American students he tried to bar from the University of Alabama in that horrific historic stand-off. He also apologized to the other student James Hood in 1995.
What did you learn about your character that helped to inform your performance?
There have been many books written about Lurleen Wallace from a very diverse group of writers from The Intimate Story of Lurleen Wallace: Her Crusade of Courage by Anita Smith to American Evita: Lurleen Wallace by Janice Law to Lady of Courage The Story of Lurleen Burns Wallace by Jack House to even a book for children Lurleen B. Wallace Alabama’s First Woman Governor by Alice Yeager. Although I learned many facts about her through very official and more nuanced historic/governmental sources, as an actor, I often embraced and found more useful some of the dishier and more personal accounts that talked about everything from her nickname “Mutt,” for following her father around on fishing trips, to her love of coffee and Benson and Hedges and Fire and Ice Revlon lipstick (the latter I have found and have been wearing for Lurleen) to the chapter where she wanted to get a divorce and often took the kids to her parents but was talked out of it by George’s brother and how she would later dismiss such a chapter like a political pro/total spin goddess.
I loved reading about the simple things that brought Lurleen pleasure and when and how she would stand up to George. Although they were in a stronger place (as a couple and financially) in ’63 and ’64, it’s useful to have the backstory to fuel and color and help with when the cracks are revealed. I loved reading about the lesser publicized details about how she (and all the jobs she took!) was instrumental in helping his rise. From creating crib sheets for his days on the bench to working many low level jobs (though some low level government jobs which would ultimately help her actually make some things happen for the mentally ill when she was governor). Often her paycheck was the only thing feeding their young family. It was more than being a helpful wife knocking out breakfast, babies, a smile and a wave!
Hubert and Muriel Humphrey
Of course it’s challenging (as I am a self-proclaimed bleeding heart liberal and very concerned with LBGT rights, women’s rights and minority rights!) to play this woman—even though generous with children, hard-working, compassionate towards mentally ill patients and a cancer sufferer, she also shared George’s beliefs about segregation, at least enough to be as involved as she was and to stay with him. Unlike George she was better loved and respected by Alabamians including African Americans. Do they know something about her REAL beliefs that I wasn’t able to find by examining her actions? Also, I feel I have learned the most about Lurleen through reading notes from her oldest daughter (who had major issues with her father and was extremely devoted to her mother- she was there during their rough chapters before they had any money and when George was running around on Lurleen and possibly hitting her) and dear friend Mary Jo Ventress. I learned about her physicality and speech through her speeches from ’66, videos of her with George during his rallies and an extensive amount of candid and official photographs. Again it’s those shots that reveal the cracks/foreshadowing of something that become most treasured for an actor, or at least for me.
It was a special gift to learn more about Muriel Humphrey. Not since playing Calamity Jane (in ahem the late 80s) have I been able to play someone from my home state of South Dakota. It’s broken my heart to realize how intolerant it’s become about certain rights for women and minorities though try to cherish what was (and in certain parts still is) beautiful and productive when I grew up and the SD that nurtured the likes of Hubert and Muriel! Hubert was born in Wallace, SD, 20 min from my hometown (Webster) and Muriel three hours away in Huron, SD. Although my mother is from Boston, most all my family is in Massachusetts and I’ve lived in D.C. for nearly 20 years, I grew up in Webster, SD— with much of her dialect/rhythms/essence – the earnestness, self-deprecation, sweetness, optimism, kind of corny/cheesiness that she beautifully possesses. I will do my best to honor her spirit and heart. There’s an almost childlike quality to her friendship and love with Hubert. Though she’s not as simple as she may come across.
I root for Muriel. I know what it feels like to arrive in a big city and have to try to figure out the game. And also the realization that sometimes you and others have to compromise to get what you want for the greater good in the end. I understand how sometimes people perceive kindness for weakness. I know what it’s like to want to take care of everyone and make the most out of life. I know what’ it’s like to be laughed at for your earnestness and optimism. I love that she found Hubert. He valued her. He listened to her. He incorporated many of her ideas. They had such a magical and wonderful love story and friendship and partnership. I loved her adoration, respect and love for his ideas. I also loved reading about some of their earlier adventures like hitting a cow on their honeymoon. Apparently they had to pay not only for the damages to Hubert’s father’s car that they borrowed but also to the FARMER even though it was the cow’s fault.
Both women did a lot of thankless work to help their men get what they wanted professionally – how they were treated varied though it’s interesting to examine all the women and other men behind the men.
Humphrey Pins courtesy of Richard Clodfelter
What comments or opinions did you hear from relatives and friends when you told them about this play and the woman you would play?
I was sorry that friends and family didn’t know as much about the wives but knew plenty about George Wallace and Hubert Humphrey! It’s been gratifying to fill in some of the blanks and champion the life of Muriel – and even many of LBJ’s hard working and very intelligent and gifted secretaries through this research and rehearsal process.
How does LBJ’s portrayal in this play compare to the one we saw in the film, Selma? Do you feel seeing the Civil Rights battle from different points of view helps or hinders how succeeding generations interpret history?
I think it’s very helpful to share multiple views.You cannot put an entire man’s life and legacy into three hours. With a man who accomplished so much and was so controversial (positively and negatively) I think it’s productive to have many gifted writers, filmmakers and other artists take a stab at uncovering some of the complex and fascinating layers.
We are in the midst of a presidential campaign. What characteristics attributed to LBJ might the current crop of candidates seek to emulate? What should they avoid?
It seems like some of today’s candidates feel the power of plain speaking and dumbing things down more than ever. (Or perhaps their fans fan the flames/are responsible for lowering the bar.) I do think there’s a time for extra clarity and “keeping it real,” but I also cherish language and a beautifully written, thoughtful, organized and graciously and passionately delivered speech. I’m saddened when it seems to be a detriment/negative to sound and BE educated and reflect complex ideas vs repeating the catchy and often cheeky fifth grade reading level sound bite. At least during his legendary private meetings, LBJ seemed to have the perfect speech for every person he was lobbying. I wonder if that made him less effective when making speeches for the masses. I guess with all of the surveillance and tracking devices, today’s politicians should be wary of what they say in some of the private meetings as well!
Why is it important that this play be staged in DC now?
I think this provocative and powerful play is important to be staged now to remind everyone of the stakes involved (LBJ says in the play, “This is the most important election of your lifetime.”) It will inspire everyone not only to get involved, get educated about the issues and to VOTE but also to take another look at some of the people who fought the very difficult and deadly battles to make a movement happen and change the laws to better the lives of so many Americans.
What has the opportunity to be in this play meant to you? Did you come away changed in any way?
I am incredibly grateful to play a part in examining and exploding this electrifying story with such talented artists and the rockstar team at Arena Stage. I love any play that inspires you to do more, read more and insist on more coverage about those relegated to the footnotes of history, make some noise, honor those whom fought the tough fights for vital freedoms and opportunities. It’s icing on the cake when the same experience can also inspire you to bust a gut from the crackling humor and wit and even bad behavior (thank you, Jack Willis), have your heart gutted and “mm hmm!” (thank you, Bowman Wright) loudly throughout the dazzling history. I also am incredibly honored and invigorated by the collaborative spirit, incredibly high bar, and gracious and generous energy that has infused every part of the process so far. I can’t wait to share the show and experience with everyone! I will forever cherish this journey!
Read Susan Rome’s reflections on playing Lady Bird Johnson in All the Way.
Read Shannon Dorsey’s reflections on playing Coretta Scott King.
To purchase tickets for All the Way, go to the website for Arena Stage.