Tuesday, September 19, 2017

At National Black Theatre, a "peculiar patriot," loyal to her people

Liza Jessie Peterson performs her one-woman show,
The Peculiar Patriot, at National Black Theatre
(photos: above by Garlia C. Jones-Ly;
below by Jean Chambers)

Time and time again, Betsy LaQuanda Ross spends tedious hours riding a bus to and from upstate towns, visiting family and friends like her city homegirl, Jo Jo. She takes Jo Jo hand-quilted squares bearing precious symbols that represent the incarcerated mother (an orange moon) and each of the children she desperately misses (stars). She comes laden with personal stories of life on the outside, told with verve and spice, almost ceaselessly at a breathtaking clip. Together, the women--one we see and one invisible to us yet made palpable through Betsy's love and insight--help us understand the devastating impact of America's prison industry on communities of color, particularly women.

Liza Jessie Peterson
(photo: Ani Berberian)
Below: Director Talvin Wilks
(photo: Adam Nadel)

The Peculiar Patriot--directed by Talvin Wilks and starring its extraordinary writer, Liza Jessie Peterson at Harlem's National Black Theatre--could have been 90-minutes of pure didacticism about a social ill. But it is no such thing. From the moment the pointedly-named Betsy Ross enters the space--set up like a prison's visiting room, with neat, bleak rows of industrial tables and chairs--and calls out "Hey, Boo! Look at you!" you're in her firm grasp.

Peterson, who derived her material from years counseling prisoners at Riker's Island, goes full-on Anna Deavere Smith in adopted body language, facial expressions, vocal intonations, emotional range and expert timing. Not easy to do and sustain but, let me tell you, she's brilliantly on point at every turn.

Her Betsy is hilarious, a Wanda Sykes just waiting to be discovered. But she's there at the prison on a mission to keep her friend's spirits up--as well as her own. In the meantime, we learn much about what it's like to be shut away while your kids are so far, growing up without you; what it's like to have a pal you can't lean in and whisper to and hug and cry with any time you want; how easy it is to get caught up by stringent sentencing laws that disregard your humanity.

If--when--you see this show, you might have a hard time keeping up with the mostly black-and-white slide and video projections that play throughout Peterson's monologue. You'll mostly notice some of these images with your peripheral vision, when aware of them at all, but that's going to be enough. Pay attention to that experience. Peterson holds your attention. Peterson alone, the living, breathing, ebulliently colorful person at the center of this machine. That's as it should be.

Of the many unfortunate, outrageous things The Peculiar Patriot informs us about, as it entertains us, is a new initiative restricting prisoners and their visitors from conversing in person. Some prisons--encouraged by corporate profiteers--have begun instituting visits by video only. When Betsy learns that she and Jo Jo will never again meet face to face across a table, she's shocked and heartbroken, and we immediately get it. Removing the possibility of human touch and connection, like Betsy and Jo Jo have enjoyed, represents one last, inhumane way for the prison industrial complex to control and exploit people caught up in its system. Our only partial awareness of the flat, drab visual projections has been steadily leading us, in a subliminal way, to this moment. By coming to love Betsy--and, through her, Jo Jo--we know what matters and the cost of its loss.

Set and lighting: Maruti Evans
Projections: Katherine Freer
Sound: Luqman Brown

The Peculiar Patriot runs through October 1 with performances on Thursday, Friday and Monday at 7:30pm; Saturday at 2pm and 7:30pm; Sunday at 4pm. There is no late seating. Each performance is followed by a talkback with Peterson. For information and tickets, click here.

National Black Theatre
2031 5th Avenue (at 125th Street), Manhattan

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