Prison through the lens of the incarcerated

Prison through the lens of the incarcerated
Playwright Liza Jessie Peterson explores the troubling criminal justice system in her one-woman play “The Peculiar Patriot,” running at the National Black Theatre until Oct. 1.
Christine Jean Chambers

Seeing the other side of criminal justice.

A former correctional facility mentor is performing her one-woman show analyzing the lives of the incarcerated at the National Black Theatre now through Oct. 1. Playwright Liza Jessie Peterson takes on several characters in “The Peculiar Patriot,” to explore conversations close friends and relatives have with imprisoned people they care about. Having worked at Rikers Island for more than 20 years with adolescents, she draws from her own experience and observations from New York’s prison system, said Peterson.

“The show is a combination of research that I was doing about the prison industrial complex, working with incarcerated youth, and having a loved one in prison,” she said. “As one of the women going upstate to visit someone behind bars, and the depths of research that I discovered on the subject matter, I wanted to do something about navigating love between barbed wire.”

In the 90-minute show solely performed by Peterson, she plays the role of Betsy LaQuanda Ross, a peculiar patriot of sorts visiting friends and kin. At these visits mostly set in an upstate correctional facility, her character Betsy executes private dialogues between close friends, while exposing some truth bombs about the prison system, according to Peterson.

With the U.S. being home to one of the largest incarceration rates in the world, she adds that audiences will be able to closely identify with some of the conversations and how the system operates.

“We are a nation of incarcerated people inside of a nation,” said Peterson. “It’s an honor to tell a story and bring this message to audiences and people that can relate to it. I want to bring this issue of the prison industrial complex forth to people who are familiar with it.”

The term ‘peculiar patriot’ is how Peterson describes the character of Betsy — a self-proclaimed patriot conscious of the world that she lives in. It also comes from the southern reference to slavery as a peculiar institution. But while different terms arose, it did not change how it was created.

“They gave it another name but it was a euphemism for slavery, because if you look at the prison industrial complex its slavery remixed and we’re still dealing with it,” said Peterson.

Peterson said even though she worked in a prison for years, witnessing the system firsthand, she never had feelings of conflict since her role was aimed at improving the lives of the people there. And she adds that when audiences see her show, she wants members of the audience to view the system, and particularly the people it locks up in a different light.

“I hope they will humanize people who have people have been criminalized,” she said. “My goal in writing this play is to hope that people will humanize the incarcerated.”

“The Peculiar Patriot” at National Black Theatre [2031 Fifth Ave. between Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard and E. 126th Street in Harlem, (212) 722-3800,]. Playing until Oct. 1. Mon., Thurs–Fri. at 7:30 pm, Sat. at 2 pm and 7:30 pm, 4 pm. $35.

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at asimo[email protected]

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