By: Lauren Yarger
July 20, 2018: We all get a chance to pull up a seat at a table in the visitor’s room of a prison in Liza Jessie Peterson’s gripping look at incarceration, The Peculiar Patriot, getting a remount at Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre.
Hi-Arts co-produces the production, which recently received a $100,000 grant from the Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice Fund, Playwright Peterson stars in the passionate one-woman drama directed with precision by Talvin Wilks.
Peterson is Betsy LaQuanda Ross (her moniker is the inspiration for the play’s title), who regularly visits incarcerated friends and family members. Entering the visiting room (starkly designed and lighted by Maruti Evans), Betsy interacts with guards who frisk her down, greets other visitors their seeing loved ones and then focuses on boosting the morale of her best friend who has about two more years to go on her unjust sentence. Betsy brings news of the woman’s three children, happenings in their neighborhood and updates about her own relationship with new beau, the good looking, poetic, political philosopher Pablo. Begrudgingly, she also gives updates about her ex, Curtis, whom her BFF seems to feel is somehow in the picture despite her protests that he is old news.
Now, re-read that last paragraph and remember that this is a one-woman play. Peterson is so absorbing in her portrayal, that we could swear we just witnessed a conversation between two characters sitting at the table. All of the people mentioned come to life in our imagination, or by character changes as Peterson, helped by sound effects (Luqman Brown, design) and projections (designed by Katherine Freer) also portrays Pablo and Curtis.
The huge problems of mass incarceration, from African Americans being wrongly convicted or getting stiffer sentences than white offenders to the profit-motivated consequences of outsourcing prisons and their services to private companies is covered in the conversations without becoming preachy (the more politically motivated agenda comes in a forced talk-back session that follows every show). The set up might be different, but message is that slavery is alive and well thanks to today’s prison system.
Like her patriotic namesake, Betsy sews. She recently returned to quilting, an interest she picked up from a woman who was a positive interest in her life. The woman helped her through time in detention and juvenile hall and steered the daughter of a black panther toward pursuing an existence outside of prison walls, Betsy’s quilt, which she brings with her on the visits, includes squares for those who are incarcerated. Her best friend’s has a full moon to show her potential, a shooting star for each of her three beloved children and a yellow ribbon to show that she will be coming home soon, The lives of those incarcerated become woven together with Betsy’s as her needle sews s story of monotony, injustice and despair.
Though much of the 90 minutes is intense and deeply moving, Peterson keeps the tale from becoming depressing by including a lot of humor. The story rings true, not only because of the exceptional writing, acting and directing, but because Peterson brings real-life experience to the tale. She worked for nearly two decades at Riker’s Island in various capacities. Peterson also was in Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” and was a consultant on the Bill Moyers’ PBS documentary “RIKERS.”
The production at the National Black Theatre, 2031 Fifth Avenue between 125th and 126th streets in Harlem, runs through July 29 prior to a tour planned this fall. Performances are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday at 4 pm. Tickets are $35: nationalblacktheatre.org.
NO LATE SEATING PERMITTED.
LaToya Murray-Berry (Costumes)
Belynda Hardin (Props)
The Peculiar Patriot ****1/2
Written and performed by Liza Jessie Peterson
Directed by Talvin Wilks
National Black Theatre
Through July 29
Photo: Christine Jean Chambers