Liza Jessie Peterson

Playwright, actor, and poet

Grantee Cohort Spring 2018, Spring 2019

Location New York

Liza Jessie Peterson is a playwright, actor, and poet. She instructs formerly incarcerated people during the reentry process through Friends of Island Academy and DREAMS Youthbuild. Over the last 20 years, she has served as a court advocate, teaching artist, group facilitator, and reentry specialist for people incarcerated at Rikers Island and returning to the community. Her experiences have inspired her to create several works, including a memoir titled All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island, and contributions to Bill Moyers’ documentary Rikers: An American Jail.

The Art for Justice grants supported the national tour of Peterson’s project, an original multi-media play—produced as a one-woman show by the National Black Theatre in New York—titled The Peculiar Patriot. The play’s title references a 19th-century Southern euphemism for slavery as “our peculiar institution,” and “patriot” seeks to examine the definition of love of country. The play’s protagonist proclaims herself a “peculiar patriot” as she makes regular visits to penitentiaries to boost the morale of her incarcerated friends and family. She is a reflection of the millions of people who travel to penitentiaries, subjecting themselves to long bus rides and security checks to maintain contact with loved ones. Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) is working with playwright and actress Liza Jessie Peterson to bring her critically acclaimed one-woman show, the Peculiar Patriot, to Angola Prison in Louisiana. The play, which references Angola Prison, tells the story of Betsy LaQuanda Ross – a woman visiting a loved one who is incarcerated. VOTE and Peterson hope that, by bringing this piece to the people at Angola Prison, they can engage the community in a relevant political dialogue about the criminal justice system.

The Fund is also partnering with Liza on two different Art and Advocacy grants. First, together with Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, Liza will create a short film entitled Black Love Manifesto wherein an original musical score and compelling videography will accompany a recitation of her poetry. During a time of great tumult across the country, Liza and her creative team will use their art to deliver healing to Black people in Brooklyn and, via social media, Black communities around the country.

Second, Liza and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting partnered together on  a special online presentation that incorporated clips from her performance of “The Peculiar Patriot.” “The Peculiar Patriot” is an indictment of the systemic inequality within the carceral system. Through these performances and subsequent educational engagements, audiences came together to learn, envision a better future and take action to create it.