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Theatre in Review: The Peculiar Patriot (National Black Theatre/Hi-Arts)

Liza Jane Peterson. Photo: Christine Jean Chambers

If you need a reason to see The Peculiar Patriot -- and I can give you several -- it is a golden opportunity to experience the work of actress/playwright/activist Liza Jessie Peterson. You may not recognize the name, since she has been primarily focused on serving and writing about this country's incarcerated population; in addition to her poems, books, and performance pieces, she was a consultant on a Bill Moyers documentary about Rikers Island and she turns up among the talking heads in Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th. Unlike most of the actors who appear at the National Black Theatre, she doesn't come bearing a lengthy resume of appearances Off Broadway and in regional theatre.

On the other hand, I can't remember the last time a previously unknown-to-me performer stunned with such assurance and skill. (It might have been Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur, eight years ago.) In this solo show, Peterson plays "Betsy" LaQuanda Ross -- the first name is an honorific given to her by a former mentor -- who dedicates herself to visiting friends in prison, an activity she juggles with a low-paying job and studies for an associate's degree. The play focuses on her meetings with the unseen JoAnn, who is a couple of years away from parole; determined to buck JoAnn up, Betsy sashays into sight, armed with a bottomless fund of warmth and wit and keeping up a steady line of news and gossip, much of it uproarious, thanks to Peterson's warmth and crack comic timing. Topics of conversation include her struggle to disassociate herself from Curtis, her incarcerated ex, who, she grumbles, "caught me at a weak moment in my life, you know, the breakdown before the breakthrough," and her dim view of the US Government. ("Bin Laden had more videos out than Beyonce and they couldn't find his ass for eight f---ing years.") Noting that "fried chicken is my weakness," she suddenly assumes a look of asperity, insisting, "I am a vegetarian." (She adds that fried chicken wings "don't count with" black folk -- only that's not the term she uses.)

Behind her sunny manner, however, is a woman whom one crosses at one's peril. Facing down her latest beau, who has had a career as an "urban pharmacist," she says, with mounting menace, "I am not here to judge you. That is one thing Betsy LaQuanda Ross does not do is judge, because the Bible says, 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.' But I am vengeful, 'cause I have Scorpio rising and I can lay in the cut for 10 years to get you back, if you cross me, and trust me it won't take me 10 years to get you back if you cross me." Dealing with a rude prison security guard who insists on examining the contents of her purse down to the last tissue, she leaves behind "a free-trial Jenny Craig fitness coupon" as a way of telling her tormentor that "you need to work some shit out!"

Betsy also has some outrageous tales to tell about others, including a doozy about a female drug dealer, her midget lesbian lover, and a baby carriage, which had the audience in stitches at the performance I attended. But under all the chatter is a sense of mourning for those she loves, their thwarted dreams and years squandered behind bars. There's Larry, who had a full scholarship to college, until he used his phone to capture an incident of police brutality, only to get arrested soon after, when a cache of drugs was planted in his car. And Tanya, who lost custody of her child when she illegally claimed her babysitter's address in trying to enroll the child in a better (read: white) school district. And Raheim, who got sprung from jail only after his sister spent years in law school, earning her degree so she could obtain a reversal of his conviction. The list is long and soul-crushing: major sentences for petty crimes, arrests for those whose only crime is being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the widespread institutional use of prescription drugs to keep prison populations sedated. Betsy doesn't need the memory of her late father, a Black Panther who was murdered by prison guards, to conclude "it's a different set of rules for us."

Indeed, the Betsy Ross moniker is most apt, because she busies herself in her spare time making a quilt, each panel of which is dedicated to another friend struggling with a rigged system. As with everything else about this marvelously appealing character, her clear-eyed assessment of the horrors of racism doesn't stop her from trying to turn sorrow into beauty. Watching her display each panel and, later, the finished work, it's hard not to think of the AIDS Quilt, which similarly gave expression to a legion of the voiceless.

The Peculiar Patriot doesn't have much in the way of dramatic action -- although a scene in which Betsy arrives with terrible news to impart is handled with tremendous delicacy -- and it turns a little preachy in its later passages. (It could probably lose a few minutes from its running time.) Then again, Peterson, who is author as well as star, makes many penetrating points about a legal system in which prisons are for-profit enterprises often set up in struggling white communities. Thus, she notes, "These underpopulated rural white towns get to count the number of inmates in their census, so on paper it looks like they have more residents than they actually do. Therefore, they get more money from the state to build their health-care clinics, community centers, playgrounds, basketball courts, and stuff like that."

Peterson's vision is given stellar support by director Talvin Wilks and a first-class design team. Maruti Evans' set, a hyper-realistic rendering of a prison visiting room, is thoroughly transformed by his varied and often colorful lighting design; Katherine Freer's superb projections offer multipanel views of the security process for visitors, a dispiriting collage of drug raids juxtaposed with that just-say-no couple, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and the Stars and Stripes with barbed wire layered on top. (The imagery is mostly seen on the upstage wall, although, in at least one striking instance, it also appears on the dozen or more tabletops that populate the set.) Luqman Brown's sound design adds to the atmosphere with such effects as buzzers, a rumble of voices, and organ music. Latoya Murray-Berry's single costume -- a camouflage jacket, torn jeans, giant hoop earrings, and gold high-top sneakers -- feels just right.

Even at its most dismaying, there's something joyful about Peterson's intensively detailed, deeply nuanced performance, whether she is stepping out of character to impersonate one of the men in her life, prowling the stage and performing a rap number, or just holding forth with trash talk about friends and lovers. She is a lively writer and an extraordinary performer with a vital story to tell. What more do you need? -- David Barbour


(18 July 2018)

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