Encore Michigan

‘The Peculiar Patriot’ sizzles while turning the lights on the American prison system

Review February 18, 2023 David Kiley

DETROIT, MI–In Liza Jessie Peterson’s The Peculiar Patriot, now playing at The Detroit Public Theatre through March 5, people of privilege are being let in to a world they know little about–prison. And there is privilege in that as you take in her lively 1 hour and forty minute tour-de-force monologue-play.

Peterson plays Betsy LaQuanda Ross, a chattery heart-of-gold single black woman who–listening to her sides of the conversations–is a “Queen” in her peer group of cousins, friends, sisters, boyfriends.  She is a home-base, a counselor, a childless Mother to many, caregiver, aunt. She is the glue of any family. A tireless lover of the people she loves. A fierce protector of those she chooses to protect. And for many, she is their one phone call.

The storyteller/writer/actress draws on her twenty or so years as a counselor working in prisons to immerse us in the lives of people who have landed in jail. LaQuanda takes regular bus-rides to an upstate New York prison to visit her bff. The play is often billed as a comedy, though that dosn’t feel quite accurate. Ms. Peterson brings the funny in all the right places to a serious topic. I suspect if she didn’t, the point of the story would be lost.

Naturally, all we see and hear is LaQuanda on her side of the table in the visitation room of the prison, chattering on and on about what Joanne is missing on the outside–people they know and worry about, LaQuanda’s boyfriends, etc, But in these stretches of monologues we get the news about this extended family and loved ones. Betsy herself did time. Betsy’s father did time, and was transferred to a hard-bitten prison in Angola, Louisiana where he was killed by guards. We hear of a young man named Larry who they both know and was in prison, and hung himself in solitary where he was left to rot. We hear about LaQuanda’s old boyfriend, Curtis, who is jail and trying to reform his life so he can come back out and court LaQuanda again.

Most of all, what audiences are let in on in Ms. Peterson’s compelling performance, which–augmented by some multi-media–her being searched before her visits, her on the bus rides, the closed-circuit TV images from the prison–is the loop of incarceration that envelopes too many black families. Ms. Peterson has captured authenticity that is difficult to find in theatre today. She is truly letting us in on what she has witnessed, and she has a great talent for turning it into deeply-felt storytelling. She transitions to a Barry White-like voice when she is reading letters to her from Curtis, and she is very amusing while doing it.

This is not some heavy-handed lesson play. It’s more like someone turning on several lights to expose a scourge in our society that mostly stays in the dark. There is a truth about the news media and politics, and that is stories about treating prisoners and suspects better don’t sell or attract votes or ratings. Anyone who takes the issue on is instantly accused of being “soft on crime.”

Ms. Peterson manages to slip some facts and realities about today’s prison system, and how it is rigged to keep people who cannot afford decent legal representation in prison with long sentences. She starts to tell Joanne about a documentary she saw on TV about it, and it’s in that storytelling that those audience members who do not know about it, get illuminated.

It is an absolute truth that prisons have been turned into the equivalent of Chinese sweatshops through privatization. Whereas, prisons used to be the exclusive domains of county, state and federal governments, many are owned now by publicly traded companies who have to look after profit and loss as they take contracts from the federal government and states, cut costs, sell marked up goods and phone service to prisoners who pay for it with the pittance earned on the work line. Prisoners earn about 20-cents an hour making goods that get sold.

There is, in fact, a very cozy relationship between The Republican Party and for-profit prisons that extends to the appointment of judges who jeep the prisons full by doling out harsh and long sentences for relatively minor offenses. It is a system that operates like a tire repair store that keeps spreading nails on the road in front of the establishment to guarantee a steady flow of customers. Ninety-two percent of the money spent by private prisons on the election of 2020 went to Republicans. That’s a fact.

Ms. Peterson even freshened up her script since she first performed it in New York some years ago, citing Pennsylvania Judge Mark Ciavarella who is in prison himself now for being caught taking kickbacks for harsher, longer sentencing of criminals, especially those represented by legal-aid lawyers, to keep Pennsylvania jails full.

Ms. Peterson’s performance is also available as an audio book on Amazon.com, as well as Angola Do You Hear Us: Voices From a Plantation Prison.

Week of 3/20/2023

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