In just listening to a few words uttered by the character of Betsy Laquanda Ross to her prison inmate friend in the one-woman play “The Peculiar Patriot” it becomes pretty clear where playwright and start Liza Jessie Peterson stands with regard to the penal justice system.
“Black people are keeping a lot of [people] on payroll,” Peterson says as Betsy. “As soon as you see the handcuffs go cu-click you see registers go cha-ching.”
Peterson has taken her political message about the U.S. penal system to the stage, and has taken her play on tour to corrections institutions across the country.
Peterson, an actress and poet currently living in New York, recently performed “The Peculiar Patriot” at three Chicago area correctional facilities, including the North Lawndale Adult Transition Center on Saturday May 19, and the West Side Adult Transition Center on May 20.
The play is Peterson’s take on the lives of individuals on both sides of the barbwire fence, as well as the faceless individuals who really stand to gain by incarcerating hundreds of men and women annually ?” many of who come from minority communities.
The play follows its protagonist Betsy as she visits various New York state and federal prisons. In her journey, she boosts the morale of her intimate inmate friends while continuously working on a memory quilt for the “soldiers” and “P.O.W’s” (prisoners of the war on drugs) that are on locked down.
Peterson puts the audience in the role of a prisoner on the other side of the glass during a visit. By staging the action so close to the viewer, she wanted them to recognize people they knew in the characters.
Bringing new meaning to the term “school of hard knocks” Peterson ended up being a witness to some 14,000 inmates in New York’s Rikers Prison in the late ’90s. Roughly 2000 of those attended Island Academy, the prison’s high school for adolescent age inmates.
“I became interested in the inner workings of the penal system when I first began working at Rikers Island High School in 1998,” recalled Peterson. “I was assigned to facilitate a two-week poetry workshop. I saw on a regular basis the way [the system] had such a negative impact on people of color. I was deeply inspired by it.”
Peterson said her play looks at the way prisons are run. She said it’s run “very much like a corporation where the primary goal is to make a profit.”
“[The play] looks at both sides of the divide and ideally gives those who will gain a fresh insight into the penal system so that we can develop solutions to recidivism and escalating prison populations,” Peterson said.
And as far as performing the play itself within the prison walls, Peterson said she hasn’t faced opposition from the corrections staff because they understand the spirit the play is meant to represent.
“The officers within the correctional facilities are aware of the hierarchy involved with prisons, and they can see the truth in its words,” said Peterson.
Peterson was born in Philadelphia. After graduating from Georgetown University where she studied international relations, she moved to New York, hoping to get into fashion and modeling.
Peterson, however, found that the fashion industry was not as rewarding as she’d hoped.
“It just didn’t feed me artistically,” she said, “and I felt it was my calling to involve myself in the arts [which] would allow me to do what I loved and still stay close to the political activism that has inspired me much of my life.”
Peterson attended the National Shakespeare Conservatory in the early 1990s, performing at poetry venues such as the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe in New York.
“Performing on stage is just something I took to very easily,” she recalled. “It wasn’t a far cry from the fashion industry where I once worked, but this allowed me to be the social activist I have always been. Art has always had a powerful effect on national policy and inspiring change ?” I hope to have the same impact.”
Peterson has appeared in film and television as well, playing a casting director in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) and a con artist in “Love the Hard Way” 2001 with Adrian Brody. She has also performed on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and has written several other plays including “Witness the Priestess” and “The Revival: Church of the Living Womb.”
As her career progressed, she faced issues of artistic compromise. But Peterson notes that she has both an artistic and social voice.
“I think within all my work the social message is always at the forefront. They are not to be separated,” she insisted. “For example, the way that no one remembers the significant impact of Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee without noting both their stage brilliance and their tremendous social impact. I aspire to be known as both activist and artist in equal measure.”
Though Peterson has given countless performances of the Peculiar Patriot in more than 25 cities over the last year, she said each performance is like a separate entity.
“Each performance, I feel I discover something new about myself and the society I live in,” said Peterson, whose audiences sometimes feature both male and female inmates, usually seated around her enclosed stage. “I enjoy seeing the audience seated so close to me. It puts me very much in my element.”