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One-Woman Play Delves Into the Complexities of Relationships with Inmates

By Gustavo Solis | September 18, 2017 6:42pm
 Liza Jessie Peterson is putting on a one-woman play about maintaining friendships with people behind bars.
Peculiar Patriot
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HARLEM — Long bus rides, humiliating security checks and expensive phone calls are normal parts of having a relationship with someone who is in jail, according to playwright Liza Jessie Peterson.

But people put up with all that and more because they love the person behind bars, said Peterson, who once dated an incarcerated man.

"It takes an emotional toll on people but you adjust and normalize it because you're in love," she said. "You are subjecting yourself to these oppressive conditions because your love outweighs those conditions."

Peterson, who worked on Rikers Island for 18 years and has become a prison reform advocate, opened a one-woman show at Harlem's National Black Theatre last week. The play, "Peculiar Patriot," focuses on two best friends trying to keep in touch while one is behind bars.

Her work at Rikers Island, which involved teaching teenagers poetry, theater and prepping them for GED courses, taught Peterson what being in jail was like not just for inmates but friends and family members who visited. 

Before working at Rikers, Peterson thought of prison in abstract terms but failed to realize the impact it has on families and communities. She decided to tell their stories in order to break through the divide.

“It lit a fire in me,” she said. “I knew there was a story that needed to be told about this Draconian system that was gobbling up black and brown people at an alarming rate.”

Peterson previously appeared in "The 13th," a documentary about the prison system, and was a consultant on a PBS documentary about Rikers Island. 

The play is meant to break some of the barriers between people inside jail and those on the outside. 

"I hope that people will now have an emotional connection to the issue and not just an intellectual, theoretical connection," she said. "The goal is to humanize the statistics."

After some performances, representatives from groups who offer services to current inmates and their families, will be at the National Black Theatre to connect with anyone interested in their help.

Those organizations include Women’s Prison Association, Lead by Example & Reverse the Trend, and Incarcerated Nation.