The Boston Globe detailed the “Peculiar Patriot”, a play by Fund grantee Liza Jessie Peterson:
Long before terms like mass incarceration, the prison-industrial complex, and “the New Jim Crow” had entered the cultural lexicon, Liza Jessie Peterson saw up close the ways that young black men from poor communities were being ensnared and exploited by a criminal justice system that sends them to prison at disproportionate rates.
She was a teaching artist running creative writing workshops at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail, where she worked with teenage inmates. A black correctional officer was one of the first to open her eyes to the problem of racially biased crime and sentencing laws, she says. “Do you know you’re on a modern-day plantation?” the prison guard asked her one day, pointing to the inmates clad in orange jumpsuits. “That’s the new cotton. They’re the crops.” He told her to go home and research “prison industrial complex.”
“I had never heard that language before. I really credit him, because it boot-kicked me down this rabbit hole of research and information and statistics,” she says between bites of salad at a Brooklyn cafe. “I had no idea how racially biased and draconian the system is. It changed my life. It just lit a fire in me. I couldn’t believe that no one was ringing the alarm about it. Mind you, this is 1998, so the issue of mass incarceration was not in the zeitgeist at all.”
That perspective shift — and her more than 20 years working with incarcerated youth — eventually inspired Peterson, a New York City poet, playwright, and actress, to write a solo show titled “The Peculiar Patriot.” Developed over the past 15 years, the play comes to the Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre Oct. 17-28, presented by ArtsEmerson.