Liza Jessie Peterson had already been teaching poetry at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, when her boyfriend violated parole. He was incarcerated, and she entered the hidden world of prison visitors. That new perspective on the correctional system led to her play, “The Peculiar Patriot,” which begins a three-week run at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre on Monday.
“This was around 2000,” Peterson recalls. “I came to Columbus Circle at midnight and found a whole fleet of buses. All these women, children and even some men were boarding these buses to go to the upstate correctional facilities. They would ride all night, go through a long, degrading security process, just to spend a few hours with their loved ones, before taking the bus home. As I talked to those women, I knew I was witnessing one of the great love stories of our time. A writer friend said, ‘You know, you have a profound story to tell, so tell it.’ ”
Peterson not only wrote this one-person play, but she also performs it (under the direction of Talvin Wilks). The show opens with Betsy, an incarcerated Black Panther’s daughter, who was raised by her grandmother. She’s trying to claw her way out of poverty via education, political awareness and the arts, but she has no desire to separate from the people she grew up with. She proves it by taking long bus rides to visit them in various prisons. Changing yourself without changing your allegiance to those closest to you is a difficult trick to pull off, and for Betsy, the challenge is personified by her romantic interests, Pablo and Curtis.
“Curtis is a recovering addict,” Peterson explains, “while Pablo is a former dealer. Betsy believes in second chances; she believes in redemption. But she doesn’t want to be with someone who’s doing something that’s hurting the community.”
In a phone call during rehearsals in Washington, Peterson quotes Malcolm X: “To have once been a criminal is no disgrace, but to remain one is a disgrace.”
“Therein lies that theme of redemption,” Peterson adds. “That’s where Betsy is coming from.” The more she reads about the “prison-industrial complex,” the more she is willing to view Curtis as a victim as much as a victimizer. And when he goes back to school and starts writing poetry, she’s willing to give him a second chance.
“I just wanted to show that this is a relationship no different from any other relationship,” Peterson says, “but they work it out differently because he’s behind bars. Curtis represents how love relationships with someone behind bars are navigated — through phone calls, letters, visits. There are going to be fights. You love someone, but they do something awful; you get angry at them and you decide whether or not you can forgive them.”
Peterson graduated from Georgetown University and was a fashion model in Paris before she wound up as an actress living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a few blocks from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, ground zero for the nascent slam-poetry scene in the mid-1990s. A friend who read some of Peterson’s journals recommended that she recite some of them as poems at the nearby cafe.
She started getting paid to read her poetry at colleges and elsewhere. She made two appearances on HBO’s “Def Poetry” series, and she published a book, “All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island.” She was even interviewed about Rikers for Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th.”
Peterson noticed that many of her poems were written in the voices of other people and realized that they could be turned into plays. She performed “The Peculiar Patriot” at 35 prisons across the country before the New York Times reviewed its “premiere,” in 2017, at the National Black Theater in Harlem.
“When I read about the similarities between slavery and mass incarceration,” she says, explaining her title, “I remembered that slavery was called the ‘peculiar institution’ in the antebellum South. I thought of the word ‘patriot,’ because all those family members at Columbus Circle at midnight were patriots of the peculiar institution of mass incarceration. The more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States are enough for a small country, and these are the patriots of that mini-nation.”
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. woollymammoth.net
Dates: April 1 through April 20.