by Marcina Zaccaria
Statistics about prison are on the walls. An audience ready to see and hear walked around a space that includes quilts, and squares of fabric with phrases of empowerment. The Peculiar Patriot combines a 90 minute monologue with a complete gallery installation. Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre is celebrating their 49th anniversary this year, and The Peculiar Patriot begins their “Black to the Future” Season.
Actress Liza Jessie Peterson does the show without amplification, speaking plainly mostly from a grey table, stage center. With audience members only a few feet in front of Ms. Peterson, the monologue seems most like a personal share. Moments expand, and bright colored light denotes a character shift. Meanwhile, video on the back wall features news from the eighties, mixed with images of rides to prisons. Some of it is documentary, some are close ups of the lead performer, and other pictures are of slavery. All together, it is some of the best multi-media combined with performance seen this year. Mass incarceration is in every part of the subject matter, and the interrogation of the issue includes numbers and names.
Betsy La Quanda Ross has a particular strength. As the main character addresses the war on drugs, it has never sounded so desolate and fact-based. The economics of prison resounds in the script, “Soon as you hear the handcuffs go ka-klink, you hear the cash register go cha-ching…ka-klink, cha-ching. Got inmates working for pennies.” With the difficult world of yard fights, parole violations, and repeated offenses, Ross negotiates. Capitalism is investigated thoroughly with the issue of incarcerating too many Blacks and Latinos. Ross discusses her friends, and the attraction and repulsion of life in prison.
Liza Jessie Peterson, who worked in prisons for almost 20 years, shows a great range as a performer. She is sometimes more convincing when embodying the male characters. She shifts effortlessly, playing Betsy, Pablo, and Curtis. Though there are moments of humor, the actress often finds a desperation beyond comprehension. Expression is found while quilting. Peterson pays careful attention to the way a story can be patched together. With the serious subject matter are flashbacks to a time when a patty cake game that included lines like “stand up tall and say it Loud/ I am Black and I am proud.” Memory sequences follow conversations with her counselor. There is even a moment when Peterson breaks out into rap.
Director Talvin Wilks guides the audience carefully through each moment, with complex departures from daily life on prison grounds. Conscious thought with predictable, planned video are signatures of the direction. Activist Liza Jessie Peterson has opened for Angela Davis, before a conference on mass incarceration. She has also performed bits of the show in over 35 prisons.
Poetic are the words composed about prison, with despair about her America. With a liberation flag in the background, Peterson intones, “Supporting our street soldiers in the hood formally in the trenches on the front lines…” Peterson never breaks out into screams or wails, as she tells you she’s a “true patriot, a real patriot.” It’s too warm to be chilling, too poetic to be bleak, and too honest to be forgotten.
The Peculiar Patriot opened on September 17 and is running until October 1 at National Black Theatre, located at 2031 Fifth Avenue between 125th & 126th Street in Harlem.