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
them of their humanity.
This play teaches you to never judge someone. The names of LaQuanda’s friends are some stereotypical nicknames like you hear people called in the Black community. When you first hear her talk about people such as Pookie, you might sit there and say, who cares, until you hear what’s going on. Some characters also have regular names such as Pablo, Curtis and Larry. Trust me—everyone that LaQuanda talks about is captivating to hear about. Peterson’s portrayal of the various characters is mesmerizing. You can see her get into the zone. Because Peterson gives you a plethora of information during the play, every show is immediately followed by a “talkback,” so be prepared to stay for that as well.
Peterson’s dedication to speaking “truth” on what is happening with Blacks and incarceration is something that is so brilliant she has just been awarded a $100,000 grant from Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice Fund and will be doing a national tour of this play 2018-2019. This play has superb, spot-on direction by Talvin Wilks.
I don’t normally go into the background of the playwright/performers I experience, but I will make an exception in Peterson’s case to demonstrate to you why this lady knows what she’s talking about and why you need to go and experience her passion. Peterson is also a poet, author, educator and youth advocate. She authored a book called “ALL DAY: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island.” She has been committed to incarcerated youth populations for more than 20 years professionally and artistically, working with youth detained in Rikers Island as a teaching artist, re-entry specialist, program counselor, GED teacher and life skills workshop facilitator. She has been featured in Ava DuVernay’s Emmy award-winning documentary “13th” and was a consultant on Bill Moyers’ documentary “RIKERS” on PBS. So Peterson isn’t just talking the talk—this lady has walked the walk!
“The Peculiar Patriot” will play through July 29. National Black Theatre is located at 2031 Fifth Ave., between 125th Street and 126th Street. Be warned, there is plenty of profane language, but it is appropriate to the characters. For tickets, go online at www.nationalblacktheatre.org or call NBT at 212-722-3800.