Liza Jessie Peterson had just started teaching poetry workshops at Rikers Island in 1998 when a correctional officer asked if she knew where she was.
“I said, ‘Yes, I’m at Rikers Island,’” Peterson recalls. “He said, ‘No, you’re on the modern-day plantation.’”
Then the officer pointed toward the adolescent boys Peterson was there to teach. “That,” he said, “is the new cotton.”
Peterson was the one who left her class with homework that night: The officer asked her to look up the term “prison-industrial complex” so she could better orient herself in her new surroundings.
“It was at that moment, back in ’98, that I was boot-kicked, for a lack of a better term, down the rabbit hole,” Peterson says.
That plunge led her to create “The Peculiar Patriot,” a one-woman show that begins a three-week run Monday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Written and performed by Peterson, the play takes place on the visitors’ floor of a correctional facility in upstate New York as the titular character, Betsy LaQuanda Ross, sits down with her unseen friend, an inmate named Joann. It’s a conversation packed with humor, neighborhood gossip and sobering conclusions about mass incarceration.
When Peterson began researching the topic, she found herself engulfed in a “massive abyss of information and statistics” regarding the expansion of the prison population, and the corresponding economic gains made by the government and private companies at the expense of minority populations.
While the show makes use of the staggering numbers related to the prison-industrial complex — including the fact that the 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States marks an increase of 1.9 million since 1972 — Peterson aimed to write a show that was first and foremost anchored in story and character.
“It’s easier to dismiss or forget a number than it is a human being in a story,” Peterson says. “Numbers feel mechanical, but story is human and art goes directly to the heart.”
Peterson began writing “The Peculiar Patriot” in 2001 and first put on the play two years later. From 2003 to 2008, she performed the show for audiences of inmates at more than 30 prisons across the country. It wasn’t until 2017 that “The Peculiar Patriot” made its formal premiere, running off-Broadway at the National Black Theatre.
“The reason I was actually performing in prisons for so long is traditional theaters were not interested in the subject matter at that time,” says Peterson, who took a full-time teaching role at Rikers Island in 2008. “This is before social justice was cachet.”
Since then, the topic has evolved into more of a hot-button issue. In December, for example, a sweeping criminal justice bill — called the First Step Act — was signed into law to bipartisan support.
For Peterson, a Georgetown alumna, “The Peculiar Patriot’s” D.C. run represents both a homecoming and a unique opportunity to spread her play’s topical message to an audience on the footsteps of Capitol Hill.
“I hope that people are paying more attention to the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration,” Peterson says. “I hope that people are galvanizing to not even reform it — because how do you reform slavery? — but abolish it.”
Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW; Mon. through April 20, $20-$69.