Critiques of mass incarceration have emerged from many places in the past few years. Scholars will note that The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander started a conversation around it when it released back in 2010. The documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay gave us a visual aspect, showing the history of how this state of affairs came to be. The Peculiar Patriot by Liza Jessie Peterson is a play about the human toll of mass incarceration on the communities that it inordinately affects. Peterson plays Betsy LaQuanda Ross, who is visiting her incarcerated friends and family. From the vantage point of a one woman show, Peterson captures the difficulty in staying connected to those who are encouraged to be forgotten. In a series of visits, Ross makes the connections from the individual to the systemic.
Whether it is pointing out the amount of profit that comes from private prisons, or the various ways that companies make money off of Black people in jail, the play never takes sight off of the reality that this is systemic. In making the parallel between the American prison system and slavery, the purpose of the title becomes clear. Slavery was called “the peculiar institution”, and now millions of people are now institutionalized in an adjusted manner. The Peculiar Patriot is a searing indictment of the state of over-incarceration. It adds to the necessary discussion about how this needs to change.
The Peculiar Patriot runs at the National Black Theater until October 1st.