‘The Peculiar Patriot’ is powerful at NBT

Linda Armstrong | 7/26/2018, 11:02 a.m.
Liza Jessie Peterson is “dropping knowledge” about Black incarceration in “The Peculiar Patriot” playing at the National Black Theatre. The ...
"The Peculiar Patriot" Christine Jean Chambers photo

Liza Jessie Peterson is “dropping knowledge” about Black incarceration in “The Peculiar Patriot” playing at the National Black Theatre. The production is being presented by the National Black Theatre and HI-Arts. Peterson not only performs this one-woman piece but also wrote it. FACTS! Watching that show inspired my Black Power side to come to the surface!

The audience is introduced to Betsy LaQuanda Ross, a woman who grew up with a drug-addicted mother and a Black Panther father who died in prison, murdered by correction officers, but still managed to impart his pro-Black and power-to-the-people principles in her heart. She found herself struggling, abused and getting into trouble. She was in juvenile detention and now as an adult is trying to turn her life around. What she does to support her Black community is go to prisons to visit her family and friends, especially a longtime friend named JoAnn. She updates them on the goings-on and brings some laughter into their lives.

Through LaQuanda’s visits with JoAnn she not only shares gossip but also speaks facts about the horrible injustices that are happening to African-Americans in the criminal justice system. She talks about family and friends who have been arrested because drugs were planted in their homes as a vendetta by the police or the person was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She talks about the ridiculous, extreme prison sentences that Black men and women get for minor drug offenses. She lets the audience witness through video projection the invasive search that visitors endure to visit their loved ones in prison.

What really opens your eyes though is her detailed explanation of how Blacks being put in prison is all about the prisons—many of which are privately owned—making money. Peterson calls it what it is, Black incarceration is slavery. Free labor. When prisons are built in these rural communities upstate they benefit everyone financially, from the contractors, to the community residents getting work and making good money, to the company that makes the prisoners’ jumpsuits, the sneakers on their feet, to the companies that supply the items to the prison commissary. Yes, it is big business. Sitting in the audience and listening to Peterson, it suddenly felt like a light went on somewhere. A bright light revealing all the capitalism and dirty deeds that go on behind making sure that prisons are filled with Black inmates, whether they are men or women—innocent or guilty.

Every moment of the 90 minutes that you are in the room, without an intermission, is filled with Peterson’s obvious dedication and passion to making sure that it becomes common knowledge that slavery is alive and thriving through the criminal justice’s prison system in this country. Her character LaQuanda visits so many friends in prison that she can describe the scenic beauty around a variety of prisons. She comes across as someone who doesn’t take crap from anyone, but always has a soft spot, compassion and understanding for her friends. Something they are starved for behind bars. Some of her friends are there unjustly, but there nonetheless and looking at doing their sentences because of a shabby lawyer. Whatever the reason, LaQuanda is their bit of gossip, hope and care. She is their connection with humanity, especially because prison existence is striving to rob