Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Peculiar Patriot
Penumbra Theater

Also see Arthur's review of Grounded


Liza Jessie Peterson
Penumbra Theater has brought a galvanizing new voice to the Twin Cities with its presentation of Liza Jessie Peterson's one-actor play The Peculiar Patriot. The play is the second of two productions comprising this year's Claude Edison Purdy Festival of Individual Artists. This work deserves to be seen widely. It offers a vital perspective on some of society's most ingrained challenges even as it entertains with great heart and humor.

Peterson, a New York-based theater artist, has spent fifteen years teaching acting and writing at the infamous Rikers Island prison in New York City, eventually becoming writer-in-residence there. In The Peculiar Patriot she paints a panoramic portrait of those doing time in prison, some for one stint, many others serving repeated time. She also presents social theory in which large state prisons become an economic engine for depleted rural communities, and Black and Hispanic inmates (that is to say, most of the inmates) are the commodity that fuels those economic engines.

Unlike so many one-actor plays framed around a social issue, Peterson does not take on the persona of various characters. Rather, she has created one character, the ironically named Betsy LaQuanda Ross, whose visits to her best friend Joanne in an upstate New York penitentiary over the course of several months are the platform for her to describe a host of current and past boyfriends, family members, friends, and neighbors, most of whom are serving, or have spent time in, the prison system. Through her responses to pauses in the conversation we understand Joanne's concerns and questions. We also see LaQuanda interacting with other visitors at the vending machines, gaining a sense of the fellowship that forms among people coping with the dehumanization brought about by the correctional system.

LaQuanda is full of jive when gossiping about folks from up and down the street back home who are heading off to prison, being released, or struggling to avoid the snare. She giddily describes her new boyfriend, who has become politicized after serving time for dealing drugs; dismissively talks about her old boyfriend who, in the course of the play, is sent back to prison whereupon he claims to have become a changed man; and sorrowfully gives account of a virtuous young man with a full scholarship to college who is set up on drug charges after testifying against local police in a brutality case. LaQuanda mournfully recalls her father, arrested as a politically activist in the Black Panther era, and how that prompted her own troubles, which led to her time in juvenile detention. She lovingly recalls the guidance counsellor who helped her through juvenile detention and gave her a love for quilting. On each visit LaQuanda shows us a new square on her quilt honoring a loved one caught in the web.

Peterson has written a character of great depth. LaQuanda is not highly schooled, but has street smarts aplenty. She clearly understands the complexity of a system that weighs down her community and places great hurdles in the path of those who seek to escape the system. She can be hard-hearted when needed, carries a reservoir of righteous anger—as in an episode where she slaps a condescending white woman in a Barnes & Noble—but yearns to be able to follow her soft-hearted instincts. At times, LaQuanda's forays into sociological and economic exposition seem a bit unlikely in the context of a prison visit, but she always loops the theory back to the reality of LaQuanda's world. Too, these somewhat heavy doses of theory are well balanced by a script that contains a great amount of humor, with frequent laugh lines, as well as tender moments that touch the heart.

As an actress, Peterson excels even beyond her writing. She cuts a striking figure, with a statuesque frame and patrician features. When she first enters the stage she submits to the prison metal detector and security inspection, with a look of stoic resignation to the indignities of the world she inhabits. She mercurially shifts from sass to grief to anger, to girlish delight—as when she plays an elaborate black-power-themed version of patty-cake with the unseen Joanne.

The spare set—a chair, a low table, and a cabinet that represents the vending machine—allows us to imagine the grim surroundings, with projections shifting from barbed wire for the prison exterior, bars for the cells within, coils to represent the vending machines, along with images of the homes left behind. Between scenes, data regarding the demographics and economic of the prison system are projected. These underscore the reality behind LaQuanda's view of her world.

The play's title refers to the peculiar institution, a euphemism for slavery, along with the play's characterization of the correctional system as a means of waging war against the African-American and Hispanic communities. LaQuanda reflects that if that be so, she is in that war, and is not through fighting. As playwright and actor, Peterson has created in LaQuanda a true a patriot, who, fully aware of the near-hopelessness that engulfs her world, continues against the odds to sally on.

The Peculiar Patriot continues through November 16, 2014, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets are $25.00, $20 for seniors and $15 students with valid IDs. For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to www.penumbratheatre.org.

Writer: Liza Jessie Peterson; Director: Lisa Rothe; Scenic Designer: C. Lance Brockman; Lighting Designer: Sarah Brandner; Sound Designer: Elliot Davoren; Projection Designer: Mark Smith; Props Master: Amy Reddy; Stage Manager: Mary Kay Winchell.

Cast: Liza Jessie Peterson (Betsy LaQuanda Ross).

The Peculiar Patriot is presented as part of the Claude Edison Purdy Individual Artist Festival by Penumbra Theatre Company, Lou Bellamy and Sarah Bellamy, Co-Artistic Directors.


Photo: Courtesy of Penumbra Theatre


- Arthur Dorman


Also see the season schedule for the Minneapolis - St. Paul region


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