The Prison System is Legalized Slavery: “The Peculiar Patriot”

Presented by ArtsEmerson
Produced by National Black Theater & Hi-ARTS
Created and Performed by Liza Jessie Peterson
Directed by Talvin Wilks

October 17-28, 2018
Emerson Paramount Center
Boston, MA
ArtsEmerson on Facebook

Review by Noelani Kamelamela

(Boston, MA) For relatively local folks who missed the remount of The Peculiar Patriot at the National Black Theatre in Manhattan this summer, grab tickets and head over to the Paramount Center. If you can’t catch The Peculiar Patriot over the rest of it’s Boston run, but if you know a theatre and a community who needs this show, bug the heck out of them to pay these artists and get this to as many audiences as possible.  

Liza Jessie Peterson has written a show which she performs with an abundance of energy and love.  Love for not just the person she mainly portrays on stage, Betsy LaQuonda Ross, the woman visiting a friend in prison, but for every person Ross tells a story about, people who are locked up as well as their families and friends.  By embodying Ross, Peterson gives sad and touching testimony to lives constrained by policies and procedures, regimented by a system slow to change and slow to correct injustice. While speaking as Ross, Peterson also takes on the masks of different folks from Ross’ community.  

There is no intermission and the runtime is around an hour and a half:  interactions with the audience could stretch the time. Smooth transitions between separate scenes and within scenes were aided by both projection and sound design.  Meanings are layered, not just within the plotlines and the names of the characters, but also the images which allude to the continuance of slavery in modern times behind bars.  The allusions, metaphors and catchy modern slang allow viewers to experience the multi-faceted nature of incarceration in New York State.

Ross is engaging in one-sided one-on-one conversations where the audience can fall easily into the rhythm of the speaker’s story at first.  As the world and story expands to encompass more time and more folks, more lives, the weight of it can stifle theatre-goers. Peterson’s delivery shifts in tempo deliberately:  slowing down to allow an onlooker time to digest or speeding up to prevent second guessing a switch in character or change in mood. Caught by the flash of one Ross’ wit and sparkle or stunned by silence after clearly bad news, I could be awoken to the depressing truths waiting under the surface.

The Peculiar Patriot and its storylines may be familiar to some, but to others, this show may be the first exposure an audience member may ever have to imprisonment in New York and the USA at large.  In the best possible future I can imagine, The Peculiar Patriot would become a period piece. Students would look to it to understand the mind and hearts of a people who were perfectly fine with perpetuating a system that creates and sustains racism, cruelty, violence and separating families by studying the effects of the system on the people and communities it aimed to rehabilitate.  We are far from that future. We are far from a future where we can trust our own governments to justly maintain the peace without our own interventions.

The Peculiar Patriot will continue on its 2018 tour to Burlington, Vermont; Cleveland and more.  


Queen’s Note: When you hit the polls on November 6, please take into account that Charlie Baker vetoed the arts budget in July 2018. It was the fourth time he’d done so. If you consider the arts one of your causes, additionally consider Baker’s cowardly actions when you vote.

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