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The Peculiar Patriot

Liza Jessie Peterson’s one-woman show combines art and activism

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
The Peculiar Patriot
Liza Jessie Peterson in her one-woman play “The Peculiar Patriot” as the character Betsy Laquanda Ross. Photo: Christine Jean Chambers

Growing up in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Liza Jessie Peterson and her sister were instilled with a sense of pride for their African American culture by their parents. The girls were often included in kitchen politics discussions, beginning at a young age, Peterson said in a recent interview on the podcast “Voices with Pebbles” on HOT 96.9FM.

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It was during this period in her life that Peterson discovered that her voice was always welcome and “carries weight in what I have to say.” For more than two decades, the poet, author, educator and activist has been using her voice to ring the alarm on the issues of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.

In “The Peculiar Patriot,” which first opened in September of 2017 for the National Black Theater’s 49th season, the actress and playwright addresses these two topics head-on as protagonist Betsy Laquanda Ross. Written and performed by Peterson, the multimedia one-woman show traces the migration of systemic injustice from the plantation to the prison yard through Ross, a self-proclaimed “peculiar patriot” who regularly visits friends and family at penitentiaries to lift their spirits. In describing her performance, The New York Times reported that “as both a writer and a performer, Ms. Peterson knows how to wield tenderness to leaven despair.”

Produced by the National Black Theater and Hi-ARTS and directed by Talvin Wilks, the show is playing at Emerson Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box theater through Oct. 28.

The one-woman show was inspired by Peterson’s professional experience working with adolescent boys and girls in 1998 at Island Academy (the high school located at Riker’s Island), the research that she was doing on the prison industrial complex and the experience of having a boyfriend serving time in a federal penitentiary and visiting him there.

Peterson, who spoke to the Banner by phone recently, described the information that she was researching on the prison industrial complex as “so profound and so disturbing.” She elaborated that this was way before the publication of Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” in 2010. “Mass incarceration was not a term that people were even using,” said Peterson. “This information was new to me. I literally just fell down a rabbit hole of information. So, all those things were marinating in my creative spirit.”

While she was working at Riker’s Island and visiting her boyfriend at the time who was incarcerated, it never occurred to her that “‘Oh, this would be a great play. Oh, this is a great story. And, oh I should write about this,’” said Peterson. “I was living it. I was experiencing it. I was walking the walk. It really was a point just as a human being where my cup runneth over.”

As she began digging deeper into the issue of the prison industrial complex, she became more energized and politicized. According to Peterson, the show really came out of a stream of consciousness. She began journaling “all this stuff that was inside of me,” and from her writings emerged the voice and character of Betsy Laquanda Ross. What began as a monologue continued to grow and evolve because “she had so much to say,” explained the actress and writer.

Peterson’s professional life as a poet started with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 1998. That same year, she began working at Island Academy on Riker’s Island teaching poetry for incarcerated youth there. It was originally supposed to be a temporary job, but she found herself staying on for three years due to the high demand for her classes from students and teachers. In 2008, Peterson accepted a full-time position at Riker’s Island.

Over the course of her 20 years at Riker’s Island, Peterson has worked in various capacities from a teaching artist for poetry and creative writing, to a re-entry specialist, to a program counselor for the Department of Corrections and as a GED instructor for the Board of Education at Riker’s Island. In 2016, she was featured in Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award- and Peabody Award-winning documentary “13th,” and was a consultant on the Bill Moyers PBS documentary “RIKERS: An American Jail.”

Her first book, “All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island,” was published a year later in April of 2017. It’s based on the 2008 year in her classroom at Riker’s Academy in which she taught a GED class.

For Peterson, art and activism on behalf of the prison population isn’t simply part of her career path. It’s about “humanity and freedom and abolition,” she said. “Asking me why I’m doing this work is asking why Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth — why were they doing their work to abolish slavery? What you’re witnessing is a great crime against humanity. There’s something in your spirit that knows that this is not normal. It’s not humane and it’s not something that we should be experiencing.”

If You Go

“The Peculiar Patriot” runs through Oct. 28 at the Emerson Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box theater.

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