Actor, Teacher, Poet Liza Jessie Peterson Reflects on Rikers | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Actor, Teacher, Poet Liza Jessie Peterson Reflects on Rikers

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Liza Jessie Peterson - COURTESY OF CHRISTINE JEAN CHAMBERS
  • Courtesy Of Christine Jean Chambers
  • Liza Jessie Peterson

In 1998, Liza Jessie Peterson took what was supposed to be a quick gig as a teaching artist at Island Academy, a high school for inmates on Rikers Island. That three-week stint at the New York City prison school turned into a three-month stay, then three years.

Two decades later, Peterson has worked in various capacities at Rikers, from part-time poetry teacher to full-time GED instructor; from reentry specialist to outreach coordinator to program counselor. Her experiences have informed a number of her creative endeavors as an actor, poet and writer, most notably her one-woman play The Peculiar Patriot and a 2017 memoir, All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island. Peterson recently combined those two works into a single hybrid production called "Down the Rabbit Hole: A Peculiar Patriot/All Day Mashup."

The performance draws most heavily on The Peculiar Patriot, which enjoyed a critically acclaimed run at the National Black Theatre in Harlem last year. The show follows Betsy LaQuanda Ross, a character described by the New York Times as "an intense and charming chatterbox," who regularly makes the long, slow trek by bus to a prison in upstate New York to visit her best friend, Joann.

Ross, like her famed historical namesake, is also something of a seamstress. But, instead of a flag whose stars represent the promise of a new union, Peterson's Ross stitches a quilt. One square depicts an orange full moon and three shooting stars, signifying Joann and her trio of children, as well as the potential life that awaits her beyond prison walls.

Peterson's play is a damning critique of the American criminal justice system. But it's also an attempt to humanize those caught in the cold, brutal machinery of a prison-industrial complex that disproportionately incarcerates black and Latino youth. By design, both the play and Peterson's book provoke and perplex audiences. But, just as crucially, they do something else: enlighten. As imprisoned journalist and political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal put it, Peterson's work is "ringing with truth, pain, rage and outrage ... and humor, delicious humor."

Peterson performs "Down the Rabbit Hole" on Thursday and Friday, November 8 and 9, at the FlynnSpace in Burlington. Seven Days recently spoke with her by phone.

SEVEN DAYS: What was your biggest takeaway from working at Rikers?

LIZA JESSIE PETERSON: Adolescents are adolescents, whether they're incarcerated or not. There is a universality of youth being narcissists and funny, challenging authority, and just developing into maturity. And what I learned is that black and Latino youth are criminalized for normal adolescent behavior.

SD: What drew you toward working with incarcerated youth?

LJP: It was a job offer. My assignment was to be a teaching artist at Rikers Island. It was supposed to be a three-week gig, and I wound up doing it for 20 years.

SD: Why do it for so long? What kept you coming back?

LJP: There was an instant connection. And, just to be clear, I wasn't a teaching artist for 20 years. I started out as a teaching artist but worked at the prison in multiple capacities.

Like with anything, sometimes you stumble upon your calling, your passion, your purpose. It wasn't something I was looking for. Once it found me, it was a symbiotic relationship: I was inspiring them, and they were inspiring me.

SD: When you first started working with kids in prison, what surprised you the most?

LJP: I was faced with so much talent. They were so smart and funny and creative. They were the total antithesis of what they were being portrayed as in society: disposable, throwaway bad kids. And I was like, "No, they're funny. They're brilliant. They're writers, thinkers, creatives. They're children."

SD: Have you kept in touch with the kids you taught?

LJP: Not all, but some. Some are doing really well. They're in school, in college. They're working; they're parents.

SD: The Peculiar Patriot is both an evocative and provocative title. Now, especially, the word "patriot" has become so loaded and seems to mean something different depending on where you align politically. What does the word mean to you?

LJP: In the antebellum South, southern lawmakers used to refer to slavery as the "peculiar institution," because "slavery" was too dirty of a word. They were trying to sanitize it by changing the language. When I thought about mass incarceration and how slavery has morphed into the prison-industrial complex, I realized that we're still dealing with this peculiar institution. It's slavery remixed.

When you think of the word "patriot," patriots are a group of people who support, love and believe in their country. When you think of 2.5 million people incarcerated, that's a country of people. And when you multiply that by their families, by their children and friends who are supporting them and navigating their love between barbed wire to stay connected, that's 2.5 million people multiplied exponentially. Those people who love the peculiar soldiers behind the walls of these peculiar institutions are supporting a country of people behind barbed wire. They are peculiar patriots.

SD: You wrote that play in 2003. How has it evolved over the last 15 years?

LJP: As a writer, you're always working on the dramatic arc. The story line is pretty much the same, but I'm always tweaking and editing. When you go back into your work, there's always room to expand, edit, shape and tweak. So it's grown because I've grown as a writer.

SD: When you're making those edits, does the play change along with what's going on in the world around you?

LJP: Absolutely. Back in 2003, there was a reference to Hurricane Katrina and how black people in New Orleans were being criminalized. They were just trying to survive, getting food and necessities from grocery stores. They were referred to as "looters." But white citizens were not referred to in that language.

Years after that, there has been so much social stuff happening that there was no need for me to reference Hurricane Katrina. That's just one example.

SD: As someone who has spent 20 years observing and working with those caught in the prison-industrial complex, do you see it as a solvable problem? And if so, how?

LJP: I'm an artist. I don't have the magic-bullet answers to how major political problems can be solved. So I'm always careful not to prescribe solutions, because I'm an artist first. My job is to be an antenna and to speak about issues and bring them to the forefront. And if I have some solutions, that's great. But I'm careful not to position myself as someone who has the solutions, because I don't.

SD: But...

LJP: But ... it's absolutely solvable. If you think of chattel slavery, my ancestors who were born into slavery and knew nothing but slavery, they were able to envision a life for their descendants who hopefully would no longer be tortured and brutalized in unspeakable, horrific conditions. They were able to envision a life beyond chattel slavery. So did the freedom fighters. For example, someone like Harriet Tubman envisioned freedom when she never, ever experienced it, never, ever saw it and knew that there had to be more to life than what she saw all around her. She was able to manifest it and run toward a vision.

Now, fast-forward to slavery remixed. I know people who are descendants of the abolitionists and descendants of the slaves, and we have to maintain that same level of vigilance and envision a society without prisons. Because if our ancestors can envision a life without slavery, so can we.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Slavery Remixed"

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