NEW YORK — 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.
Peterson plays the smart, loquacious Betsy LaQuanda Ross, as she makes regular trips by bus to a penitentiary upstate to visit her bestie Joann and keep her spirits up.
The play explores the human fallout of mass incarceration. Peterson calls it a “love story” between prisoners and loved ones coping with their absence. The actress brings to vibrant life the other characters that appear in Betsy’s life, including a couple of boyfriends. And as the play progresses, she goes on a journey of political awakening to the realities of the American criminal justice system, which imprisons black people at more than five times the rate of whites, with black men receiving federal prison sentences that are on average 20 percent longer than white males who commit the same crimes.
“My intention is to make the character a human being — soulful and endearing and politically incorrect and sassy — and to humanize the people that she’s talking about, so that the issues and the people who are affected by mass incarceration become tangible and real and not just statistics,” Peterson says. She also spoke about these issues in Ava DuVernay’s Emmy award-winning documentary “13th,” which examines how the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery allows an exception for “involuntary servitude” for those convicted of crimes. That clause, DuVernay and others argue, has been used to justify social and legal oppression of black people since the Jim Crow era.
Indeed, the title of the show echoes the term “the peculiar institution,” the euphemism employed by politicians in the antebellum South to refer to slavery. “They were trying to sanitize it by changing the language,” Peterson says. “So I thought about how mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex is slavery remixed. Slavery has morphed into mass incarceration as we know it today, as an institution of oppression and using people’s bodies for profit.”
Peterson, a Philadelphia native who calls herself “an artivist” — a combination of artist and activist — got her start as a writer as part of the underground slam poetry and spoken-word scene at the influential Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village, and she appeared on several episodes of HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” in the 2000s. As an artist, Peterson, felt she had “a responsibility to do something, to say something” about what she was learning about mass incarceration, but it wasn’t until a few years later that an idea came to her.
While she was working at Rikers, Peterson had a boyfriend who had violated parole for a drug offense and was sent back to prison. The first time she visited him, she showed up at Columbus Circle in Manhattan after midnight to catch a bus to his correctional facility upstate. As she rounded the corner, she spotted hundreds of people — women, men, children, grandparents — all carrying bags and waiting to board a fleet of buses. Each was destined for a different prison. “I knew in that moment I was witnessing what I thought was one of the greatest love stories that has not been told, which is all that love getting on these buses to go see family members and friends behind barbed wires.”
Working inside a jail, researching the issue of mass incarceration, and visiting her boyfriend, she says, took a toll on her emotional well-being. “Every part of my life was immersed in prisons, and so I had a meltdown. I’m like, what’s going on? I didn’t sign up for this! I was having a pity party.”
Her best friend, also a writer, chuckled when Peterson called her up crying and venting. “She was like, ‘Girl, you have a story to tell. Write that [expletive] down.’ So I got out my journal, and I started writing, and it came out as a stream-of-consciousness thing. But as I was writing, I realized, oh, this is the voice of someone, and it came out as a monologue, and the monologue just kept going,” says Peterson, whose book “All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island” was published last year. (She’s currently developing a TV pilot based on the book.)
Without an institutional theater to support “The Peculiar Patriot,” Peterson did readings of the play for inmates at New York’s Eastern Correctional Facility. Later she toured it to more than 35 prisons across the country.
A few years ago, Peterson finally started getting development support from theaters through readings and workshops. That allowed her to collaborate with a director and design team on the multimedia, sound, and projection ideas for the piece. The National Black Theatre and Hi-ARTS premiered the current iteration of “The Peculiar Patriot” last fall and remounted it again in the summer.
Before that production, director Talvin Wilks also encouraged Peterson to lean into her roots as a spoken-word artist. There’s a moment in the show that they call “the hip-hop manifesto,” in which audiences hear Betsy activating her righteous political voice. “We found that a lot of people who knew Liza had always felt that [the poetry and the political] aspects were missing from the production,” Wilks says. “We wanted to liberate some of the lyricism in the text itself. Through writing the hip-hop manifesto, we really started seeing both Liza and the character.”
Wilks says the play feels more relevant than ever thanks to social justice movements that have sprung up to fight the injustices of the tough-on-crime laws from the 1990s. “I feel that Liza was ahead of the curve,” he says, “and then suddenly the curve caught up with her.”
THE PECULIAR PATRIOT
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Paramount Center, Boston. Oct. 17-28. Tickets $60, 617-824-8400, www.ArtsEmerson.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.