What would it be like to work on a show for almost two decades before finally performing it? That is exactly what writer and performer Liza Jessie Peterson did for her show The Peculiar Patriot. This one-woman story follows Peterson’s character, Betsy LaQuanda Ross, who spends her time visiting and unearthing the secrets of penitentiaries in the United States. Peterson is bringing her piece to ArtsEmerson this October, however this show was initially conceptualized in 2003 and has had a fifteen year development period.
Peterson began creating The Peculiar Patriot after working in and visiting prisons around the country, with extended time at Riker’s Island Academy where she taught poetry to youth inmates. The time she spent in these facilities inspired the creation of the show as Peterson realized that the story of incarceration in the United States needed to be told. Since the inception of The Peculiar Patriot in the early 2000s, Peterson has toured this production at a more than thirty prisons across seven states. During each of these visits, the character of Betsy LaQuanda Ross has evolved based on new stories and insights gathered from inmates and their families. Through Peterson’s efforts within the prison system, her show has transformed into one that reflects the different stories of people impacted by the prison system over state lines, prison lines, and timelines.
While at Rikers, Peterson noticed that the population of youth inmates was disproportionately boys of color, however, at the time she “did not have the words to articulate” this crisis because mass incarceration wasn’t widely spoken about. In an interview with BRIC TV, Peterson explains that it was actually a corrections officer who first pointed out to her the relationship between race and incarceration, commenting that Rikers was like a “modern day plantation.” This comment, in addition to what she was exposed to at Rikers Island resulted in Peterson doing more research on the prison industrial complex and beginning her journey towards The Peculiar Patriot. In the same interview, Peterson notes that learning about mass incarceration “lit a fire in her” and made her realize that she had the power to create a piece of art that could draw attention to this problem and even pose solutions.
In 2014, The Peculiar Patriot was performed as part of an experimental works festival put on by the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. Met with high praise, critics called it “both enlightening and entertaining.” Two years later, Peterson opened for political activist Angela Davis at a conference on mass incarceration in New York City at Columbia University. The performance at this conference was particularly relevant since much of The Peculiar Patriot is based on Peterson’s work with New York City prisons and correctional facilities. In September 2017, the show was performed as part of the National Black Theatre’s 49th season and it has continued touring since.
The prison system in the United States is one that grows more complex as years pass, with new people assuming power and putting new laws into place that affect inmates and families alike. The Peculiar Patriot is so unique because it has gone through a number of iterations over the past decade and a half to reflect these changes and to incorporate different narratives and experiences. The fifteen years worth of research and first hand accounts collected by Peterson has created an incredibly authentic show and one that serves as both art and political commentary. Despite the fact that The Peculiar Patriot is just 90-minutes long, it is deserving of all the time and thoughtfulness Peterson put into it, as it is ultimately a show that highlights the magnitude and injustice of incarceration in the United States.