Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Peculiar Patriot
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Liza Jessie Peterson
Photo by Teresa Castracane
Once again, Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is hosting a theatrical artist with both an important message and a striking way to convey it. Liza Jessie Peterson is The Peculiar Patriot, who devotes herself to visiting incarcerated friends and protesting the policies that fill for-profit prisons with those least able to protect themselves and stand up for their rights.

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
The Peculiar Patriot
April 1st - 20th, 2019
Written and performed by Liza Jessie Peterson
641 D St. N.W., Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-393-3939 or