Actress, playwright, and advocate Liza Jessie Peterson is a force of nature fighting to expose the wrongs of America’s sprawling prison system, one performance at a time.
Her rousing one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot, catalogues the ruinous effects of mass incarceration on communities across the U.S. in a spellbinding 90 minutes. Peterson relies on a blend of infectious humor, audiovisual spectacle, and stunning statistics to issue a rousing call to arms against injustice.
The Peculiar Patriot
closes April 20, 2019
Details and tickets
Peterson begins her epic monologue as narrator “Betsy” Laquanda Ross on a spartan stage, representing the visitation room at a federal prison in upstate New York. The character of Ross is an NYC-based teacher dedicated to bringing comfort to friends and community members locked up across her home state. Peterson couches her larger indictment of the prison system in Ross’ series of visits to her incarcerated best friend. The intimacy of the visitation room recasts the mind boggling effects of mass incarceration in personal terms even the most hardened cynic can understand. It’s a savvy dramatic choice by Peterson and director Talvin Wilks to avoid early lecturing and instead to lower the audience’s defenses through casual banter between friends.
As Betsy Ross, Peterson is by turns confident and vulnerable, as well as funny and heartbreaking. She slings hilarious anecdotes about drug dealers hiding in baby carriages, before pivoting to depressing news of a young neighbor whose promising upward path is blocked by a suspect drug conviction. As Ross tries to raise her friend’s spirits, she reveals her own fears about daily survival in a world where half her support system is behind bars. This intimate character development pays off when Peterson suddenly pivots to the graduate lecture portion of the evening.
Channeling the brash persona of Ross’ ex-con boyfriend, and buttressed by eye-grabbing visual projections from designer Katherine Freer, Peterson delivers a revolutionary kind of TED talk on the bleak nexus of societal forces that perpetuate mass incarceration. A Constitutional loophole permitting inmate slavery. Judges taking “Cash for Kids” kickbacks for harsh sentences. Telephone companies drastically overcharging for prison phone calls. Each data point strikes like a hard blow from a ball-peen hammer.
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These mesmerizing polemics flesh out Ross’ personal anecdotes into a broader picture of dysfunction within the system. And on the outside, Ross slowly wears down through an unforgiving cycle of long bus rides, metal detectors, and slamming doors, amplified by punishing sound cues from Composer and Sound Designer Luqman Brown. As Ross fights against her own prison of repetition, a series of unavoidable conclusions emerges: The prison system is broken, the solutions aren’t obvious or easy, and Ross (and by extension Peterson) can’t hope to fix it all by herself.
Peterson’s spellbinding ninety minute journey slides by far too quickly. Her talent is undeniable, her moral clarity unshakable, and her call to action clear. It’s easy to imagine Peterson channeling her gifts into a more lucrative and less emotionally demanding lane, like stand-up comedy or film. Audiences, Woolly Mammoth, and our ever-growing prison population are lucky indeed that she has chosen this path instead.
The Peculiar Patriot . Written and Performed by Liza Jessie Peterson . Directed by Talvin Wilks . Scenic and Lighting Design: Andrew Cissna . Costume Design: Latoya Murray-Berry . Composing and Sound Design: Luqman Brown . Projection Design: Katherine Freer . Production Stage Management: John Keith Hall . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in association with National Black Theatre and Hi-Arts . Reviewed by Ben Demers.