I had the immense pleasure of seeing Liza Jessie Peterson perform her poignant, one-woman show, “The Peculiar Patriot” in 2019 at the National Black Theatre in Harlem. She created a character, Betsy LaQuanda Ross, who plays a vital role in her community by visiting people and friends from the community who have been incarcerated. She visits them and brings news of other members of the community, whether it be gossip, or good or bad news. She also encourages them and lets them know that they are not forgotten and that someone cares. This powerhouse production casts a blaring light on the racism and mass incarceration of Blacks and other minorities by the criminal justice system. It is an education that everyone should experience, as Peterson shares statistics of what is being done to our men and women. This play touched me deeply, so I was thrilled to hear that Audible optioned to carry “The Peculiar Patriot,” and that it’s currently available for listeners to experience.
Once Audible optioned the play, its creator and performer Liza Jessie Peterson did a live performance at Audible’s Minetta Lane Theater in New York City with a live audience. Peterson recently sat down with the AmNews and was thrilled to talk about “The Peculiar Patriot” and important issues that society needs to address. I truly love the fact that Peterson is dedicated and passionate about her message of the injustices happening to our people through the criminal justice system of mass incarceration. Her passion vividly comes across whether you see her on stage or listen to her on Audible. A Q&A follows.
AmNews: How do you feel about “The Peculiar Patriot” being optioned by Audible?
LJP: It’s spectacular to be part of the Audible family. It amplifies the importance of the show, especially with theaters being shut down, people can still have access to the show. They optioned to perform the performance live in March 2019. They had to book the theater, there had to be an audience. They booked it for March and a week after my performance all the theaters shut down, so I got it in under the wire. It was divine timing.
AmNews: What do you hope audiences get out of listening to it?
LJP: I hope they are inspired to want to see the play live because it’s entirely different as a live theater experience, and I hope that they want to learn more about mass incarceration and the people who are affected by it.
AmNews: With the current atmosphere in this country and the definite non-reforming of the criminal justice system with regards to Black people, what do you want this play to say to young people?
LJP: I want it to say to young people, Black love is kryptonite for white supremacy. We have to love ourselves, know who we are, learn about the system and how it is rigged, stacked against us. Maybe they can see the landmines and avoid the landmines so that they don’t get ensnared. They have to know they are there in order to not get ensnared.
AmNews: What hope is there for things to get better for Blacks when it comes to incarceration in this country?
LJP: I am a hopeless optimist. If Harriet Tubman could be born into slavery, but she knew in her mind’s eye that there was a freedom, we have the same reasonability to have hope when there is no hope in sight. Envision like Harriet. We’re African people, we’re powerful, we can manifest, we have and we will, it’s our birthright.
AmNews: How do we slow down a vicious cycle in our community—where either poverty leads to crime, or innocent Blacks are set up to be taken down and keep the prison systems full?
LJP: It’s the colonizers and the oppressors that need to be asked that question. What can they do to stop innocent Blacks from being terrorized and incarcerated? We are being educated by colonizers. How can we expect the descendants of our former slave masters to teach our children? We just have to continue to educate ourselves beyond the colonized educations that our children are getting. Even with that I’m a hopeful optimist.
AmNews: What plans do you have for “The Peculiar Patriot” when theater is back?
LJP: I have plans on bringing it back into the theater, plans to record and film it as a movie. I will do the roles.
AmNews: What was the journey of this work?
LJP: I started teaching at Rikers Island in 1998, as a teaching artist teaching poetry. My first week there a correctional officer said, “You don’t know where you are. You’re on a modern-day plantation.” He pointed to the boys and said, “They’re the new crop, that’s the new cotton.” 1998 I was boot-kicked down the rabbit-hole and learned about advanced incarceration. I wrote the first draft 2001. It’s been in development for many years.
AmNews: What do we need to focus on as African Americans?
LJP: We’ve spent so much time examining what the dominant culture is doing, European culture, but we need to examine, why. Instead of talking about what they do, we need to understand who they are and why they do it, so we can understand as African people who we share the planet with. Understanding is the key to the solution. Once you understand who and what, then we can understand the solutions. If you don’t understand white supremacy, what it is, how it operates, what it looks like, how it manifests, then everything else will only confuse you, those are the words of scholar Dr. Neely Fuller.