Magic Time!: Inside the DC Jail with Liza Jessie Peterson and ‘The Peculiar Patriot’

"Individuals talked about how they got right on the phone and made a collect call and told their family members that are local, 'You have to see this piece.' "

Actor and Playwright Liza Jessie Peterson is an extraordinary artist/activist. Tucked inside her uproarious one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot—which she performs through April 20, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth—is an appalling account of the prison system. One doesn’t expect such a serious takeaway from a show that starts out so funny.

Peterson inhabits a character she created named Betsy LaQuanda Ross. Betsy is visiting her close friend Joanne, who is incarcerated. Peterson sits at a table as if in a prison visitors room and speaks to us the audience as if to Joanne. Occasionally she embodies other characters, such as two men in Betsy’s life, Pablo and Curtis. Mainly Betsy shares confidences girlfriend-to-girlfriend and displays a quilt she is making to honor incarcerated friends and family members.

Liza Jessie Peterson in 'The Peculiar Patriot' at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘The Peculiar Patriot’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Peterson frontloads the performance with laughs, earns our trust, then slowly but surely delivers some sobering information: The U.S. prison industrial complex profits from the incarceration of black and brown bodies. It is a massive business increasingly privatized. In white-populated rural areas where prisons are typically built, local economies are entirely dependent on it. And today the war on drugs is to prisons what the slave trade once was to plantations: the supply line for a financially indispensable subjugation.

“No matter where I go with this play,” Peterson told me, “I have to perform it in a jail facility that’s in the area of the theater. That’s always important for me.”

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘A Peculiar Patriot’ at the DC Jail. Photo by Muntaquim Muhammad.

So it was that on a recent Monday morning Peterson performed A Peculiar Patriot in the DC Jail. It was the same 90-minute play she was doing at Woolly, minus staging effects. The audience of women and men were all wearing orange.

In a phone interview with Peterson afterward, the activist conviction and artistic commitment that I’d seen on stage came through loud and clear.

John: When and where did you begin performing A Peculiar Patriot in prison?

Liza Jessie Peterson: The first draft of the script was actually workshopped at Eastern Correctional Facility, a maximum-security penitentiary for men in Napanoch, New York. I had been a guest there several times as a poet, to perform and to speak with the writers’ group. This was back in 2000, 2001. Most of the men there were doing long sentences. I was visiting maybe twice a year. I would see the same guys. So I figured this would be a great opportunity for me to read them some pages, get some feedback and their insight.

Did the play already have your character Betsy talking across the table to a friend who’s inside?

Yes. The first draft of the script was the setup you saw at Woolly, which is Betsy talking to her best friend Joanne. I just wanted the guys to hear it. And it wasn’t a performance, it was just a workshop. The men loved it, they gave me feedback, we talked about it. And they gave me their approval, their validation. That’s when I knew I had something I could take back out to the community, and I felt confident because I had their approval.  I had validation from the people that the play is talking about.

The first time I performed it in jail was at Rikers Island in 2003. Rikers Island has ten or eleven different facilities, and I performed it in five or seven. Then I took it back to Eastern Correctional upstate so the guys there were able to see the finished product. That led me down the rabbit hole of performing it in between 30 and 35 penitentiaries across the country.

At some point, the play stepped onstage in front of a theater audience. How did that happen?

At first, there weren’t many theaters that were interested in it. This was before The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s seminal book, which cracked open the conversation nationally. This was before mass incarceration was even a term that people were using. This was before social justice was a thing that people were talking about nationally. It was a subject that wasn’t sexy. And it still isn’t, but people are talking about it. It’s a thing that people want to embrace now, which is great. But back then doors were not opening. Theaters were afraid to touch it. It was too edgy, too provocative. I was told it was going to scare the funders and subscribers. So I took it and did the prison tour— I leaned into the love and the love happened to be in prison.

Could you talk about some of the differences and similarities for you as a performer between doing the show for an audience of ticket buyers who have come to a theater like Woolly and doing it for people who are incarcerated and who have been gathered in a space to see your show?

People in theaters have different entrances into the world of the play. Some have been affected by mass incarceration. Some know nothing about it. Some have a little bit of knowledge. Some have been previously incarcerated. It’s the same with the incarcerated population that I perform for. Some don’t know about any of the information or statistics. They’re just caught up in it and it’s a total awakening. Some are nodding their heads and they’ll have an amen corner—they’re like, “Yes, yes,” ’cause they know. The show is affirming to them.

So it’s pretty much the same. The difference is that performing in prison, there’s no sound cues, no light cues, no video. It’s stripped down. It’s just me and the table and the quilt and a microphone. That’s it. I cut my teeth doing the play in jails. I’ve performed in hallways, in cafeterias, in classrooms, in chapels, wherever the prison has space for me. That’s where I do it.

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘A Peculiar Patriot’ at the DC Jail. Photo by Muntaquim Muhammad.

Would you talk to me about the performance in the DC Jail— how it went and what the responses were?

It was great. This was only the second time I’ve performed in prison for a coed audience because usually the men and women are segregated. So performing for incarcerated men and women at the same time was very powerful. The women, they immediately become Joanne, the person Betsy is talking to. And the men, they automatically totally identify with Pablo and Curtis.

They saw themselves at different entry points and it was really transformative. I always get so much inspiration and positive charge because the play is for them, it’s about them. And my intention is to inspire them and to affirm them and to let them know that they’re loved and thought about and they’re not disposable, that they matter and that we need them.

They affirm me as much as I affirm them. They affirm that my message is important. They affirm that my art is still necessary.

If someone said to you, “Liza, I want to be as brave and as effective an artist/activist as you”—meaning: “I want to combine my art and my social justice activism as commitedly as you do—what would you tell them they should know?

It’s never about the recognition or the cameras or the press. It’s always about the people. Be ready for the long haul. Be ready to be in it for the long game. And always stay grounded in what your intention is and who it’s for. As long as you stay grounded with the people and the community, eventually doors will open to your dream and to your commercial success. If that’s your only goal, commercial success, you’re in it for the wrong reason. But if you’re in it to touch people, to heal people, to inspire people, to change people, to make a difference in people’s lives, then be ready to roll up your sleeves, get some dirt under your fingernails, and just keep grinding for the community, grinding for your people.

You have to have the spirit of a black panther in your heart, and that is an unyielding love for your people, whoever your people are.

The Talkback, the Response

I was not at Peterson’s DC Prison performance, but I got a vivid eyewitness account in a phone interview with Dr. Bahiyyah M. Muhammad, a professor of criminology at Howard University. Dr. Muhammad specializes in the consequences of parental incarceration on children (the topic of her very moving TedTalk). She also facilitates a program in the DC Jail that includes incarcerated individuals who watched Peterson perform

Dr. Bahiyyah M. Muhammad: Liza created such a safe space it almost caught the incarcerated individuals off guard. By the time she got to Betsy’s second visit and the third visit and the fourth visit, they couldn’t contain their laughs. I mean, she just won over all of the hearts of the men and the women.

Dr. Bahiyyah M. Muhammad. Photo courtesy of Dr. Muhammad.

After the performance, I led a really intimate dialogue with the incarcerated males and females. And when it got to the commentary, the incarcerated individuals were talking about how it made them take a time lapse. They went back in their lives and thought about, sometimes for the first time, the experience of the visitor. When you are incarcerated, you don’t get to see the landscape you’re going to, so when you’re shipped out from one jail into a full prison into a penitentiary, you’re not enjoying the landscape of the ride. That’s what free people are able to do. Liza really gave us all new eyes.

Later I stay and continue to run my classes. The brothers and sisters are still engaging and talking about those experiences and what it meant for them. It lives on in them. They are still empowered. Individuals talked about how they got right on the phone and made a collect call and told their family members that are local, “You have to see this piece.” They carry the passion in them, and it’s still in there. It’s still in the space. Liza changed the space. She made it okay to talk about the lived experiences of individuals.

There’s one scene where she talks about engaging with this correctional officer who pats her down in a way that was uncomfortable, that was unconstitutional, that shouldn’t have happened, but she made it a satire. She was able to laugh about it. She was able to make the audience say that when things happen, acknowledge them, but keep moving. She drops a lot of jewels—saying white supremacy is this, you have white devils that look at these sort of issues—but that’s not a chip on your shoulder. I mean, she literally is sitting there, brushing things off of her shoulders. Her message is not “Let’s divide, let’s go and be vicious.” She’s saying, “Let’s love. Let’s acknowledge and let’s love. Let’s acknowledge the people that are visiting us. Let’s say thank you for that.”

There was an incarcerated woman and man in the audience who talked specifically about “I’m doing this different,” through tears. Through tears, they’re saying, “I’m doing this different. I am the individual that went out there and said I was going to do X, Y, and Z, and I thought about myself. I didn’t think about what that felt like to my family. I didn’t know what it felt like to them.” And through this play, they were saying to Liza, “You helped me feel what it means when I get it wrong—I’m carrying an entire family and an entire community.”

You had men that talked about how they never knew the experience of their parents; they were incarcerated in rural facilities, and their parents and their mothers had visited them across 22 years. And being able to see what that meant—being able to be remorseful and empathetic to the collateral consequences that families go through—this production hits it on the head. And for Woolly Mammoth Theatre to get this performance on stage, to be behind it, inside of a correctional facility, they got it right. It’s changing lives. It’s changing lives of individuals.

There was one guy, when I went on the unit yesterday—and if you could only see the passion that he had in talking about this one-woman show. I mean, he had never seen a production in that way. He thought about memorization, he thought about narrative, he thought about climax, he thought about writing—he thought about being able to do it himself, he saw the power in the arts.

And when you bring that into carceral spaces, spaces that don’t have windows that open, spaces that don’t allow individuals to be free the way they could be in society, the play lives on. That play will forever ricochet through the insides of that correctional space.

[See Ian Thal’s review of A Peculiar Patriot.]

Liza Jessie Peterson in ‘The Peculiar Patriot’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without intermission.

The Peculiar Patriot, presented in association with National Black Theatre and Hi-Arts, plays through April 20, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the venue or order online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.