Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Peterson, who has taught poetry to incarcerated teenage boys at Rikers Island and later became the regular visitor of a boyfriend imprisoned for violating parole, wrote the one-woman play and embodies the character of Betsy LaQuanda Ross, whom the audience sees in a sequence of scenes as she visits her best friend in prison. Andrew Cissna has designed a blank space with a table and chairs, representing a prison visiting room, while Katherine Freer's projections bring Peterson's imagery to concrete life, supported by Lugman Brown's music and sound design.
Through the course of the 90-minute play, well paced by director Talvin Wilks, the audience learns about Betsy's childhood as the daughter of a Black Panther and the collapse of her family after her father went to prison; her former boyfriend, now doing time and trying to get her back and the part-Native American, part-African American she's currently seeing (Peterson also embodies both men in brief speeches); her troubled teen years; and her mission to help the people she knows who have been caught up in the prison system.
Betsy talks about how slavery is not a metaphor when referring to prison inmates: under the law, they can be forced to work for no or little pay. "We're straight cash money crops," she says, part of a system where the private companies that operate penal facilities have an incentive to incarcerate people, both for their direct financial benefit and as a source of employment in the communities where the prisons are located.
Lest all this sound too grim, Peterson keeps the conversation lively. Betsy is a vegetarian who also loves fried chicken wings (as far as she's concerned, they don't count as meat); she tells an outrageous story of a tiny drug dealer who operates out of a baby carriage; she shares the neighborhood gossip; and she talks about the natural beauty of the countryside surrounding the prisons in upstate New York.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company