Laughter, tears mark Liza Jessie Peterson’s brilliant one-woman show, ‘The Peculiar Patriot’

Nadine Matthews | 7/26/2018, 11:07 a.m.

Liza Jessie Peterson was trying to explain how her one woman show, “The Peculiar Patriot,” came about. “I was inspired by family members I would see getting on the bus at midnight at Columbus Circle,” she said. “Boarding fleets of buses taking them to various correctional facilities in upstate New York, and I knew that I was witnessing a love story.”

The name of the character in Peterson’s one woman show is Betsy LaQuanda Ross. She was given the nickname Betsy by a mentor from the character’s youth, who believed she had a gift for sewing quilts, an activity she was coaxed into beginning while in juvenile detention as an adolescent. The real Betsy Ross, of course, is given credit for sewing the first American flag. She hailed from Philadelphia, just as the poet and playwright Peterson does.

Peterson struggles to find the words to identify exactly why she chose Betsy Ross as the blueprint for Betsy LaQuanda Ross. There is the definite sense that there was something spiritual at play. That is, Peterson didn’t so much make that decision as carry out a preordained mission. “Betsy LaQuanda Ross, it’s kind of hard to explain the creative process,” Peterson said. “It’s just how characters come. It’s kind of how artists are wired. I can’t really explain it. Part of the inspiration was me, the artist and human being, witnessing hundreds of people gathered at Columbus Circle at midnight to support and show love and show up for their loved ones who were behind bars. I knew those people at Columbus Circle were peculiar patriots. They were doing something very loving and supporting a nation of people who were behind the wall.”

Peterson has worked for two decades at Rikers Island jail in various capacities, including as a poetry instructor. She arrived in New York City in 1991 and started working at Rikers in 1998. “I was asked to conduct a poetry workshop for adolescent boys detained at Rikers Island,” she explained. “I worked for a nonprofit that sent poets and writers to schools in NYC to conduct poetry workshops.”

She admits feeling a little insecure as to how she would be received when she started out. “I knew I was going to teach kids, and the only trepidation I had was that they wouldn’t like my workshop or they would think poetry was boring or that they would be typical ornery teenaged kids.”

Peterson came away from the experience very pleasantly surprised. “They were very receptive,” she said.

Her love for young people provides the fuel that keeps her going. “I enjoy working with youth, period,” she said. “They’re the future and there’s so much potential and there is so much bright light in them that I always seem to identify and connect with. As an artist and an educator, it brings me great joy to spark a light of inspiration.”

Peterson is also an accomplished author, having written “All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island,” and she appeared in Ava DuVernay’s Emmy Award winning documentary “13th.” She is also the recent recipient of a $100,000 grant from the Art for Justice Fund.