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Liza Jessie Peterson Turns Activism Into Poetry


“It lit a fire in me. I had no idea just how Draconian, and racially biased, and how people are profitting from people being behind bars. So I took this information back to my class and started incorporating it into the poetry as best as I could.” – Liza Jessie Peterson on first learning about the term ‘Prison Industrial Complex’


As a playwright, actor, activist, and educator, Liza Jessie Peterson’s ability to create performance out of protest is not only thrilling to watch, it’s an opportunity to invite necessary discussions. Peterson wears all of her hats with The Peculiar Patriot, her one-woman-show delving into injustice in the justice system. The monologue has seen several iterations over the last fifteen years:  from stage to screen to slam poetry; in all of them, Peterson engages audiences with activism commingled with laughter, beauty and insight. 

Back in 1998, the Georgetown graduate rooted herself into the underground slam poetry scene with the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (later called Def Poetry). Peterson appeared in two episodes of HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, more commonly referred to as Def Poetry Jam—a spinoff to the already popular Def Comedy Jam. Def Poetry Jam was a spoken word poetry television series that aired from 2002-2009 hosted by Mos Def and produced by Russell Simmons. It is nothing short of a miracle that a TV program dedicated to the art of poetry made it to air at all. Over the six season run the show, audiences were introduced to newcomers and legends including The Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka and Sonya Sanchez, Beau Sia, Taylor Mali, Big Poppa E, Mayda del Valle, Mike Mcgee, and Alix Olson. Frequent ArtsEmerson collaborator Daniel Beaty turned heads with his performance there, too.



Peterson’s passion for poetry and social justice then took her to Riker’s Island Academy teaching poetry and theatre to the incarcerated youth. What was originally supposed to be a three week long job turned into a full time teaching position in 2008, where Peterson has remained ever since. During her tenure at Riker’s Island Academy, she developed “The Urban Folktale Project,” where her students created and performed three original plays based on pressing issues in their own lives which toured various venues in New York City and went on to receive a grant from the Russell Simmons’ Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. Peterson’s experiences in teaching led to the publication of her first book All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island. 



Her capacity for language is mesmerizing and her stage presence seamlessly draws audiences into the issues at hand. It is no wonder Peterson has found success as a teacher and performer, even coining the term “artivist” in order to encapsulate her passion for performance with her political endeavors.


Don’t miss The Peculiar Patriot running OCT 17 – 28 at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box in the Emerson Paramount Center to engage with Liza Jessie Peterson’s words, performance, and activism.


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