Liza Jessie Peterson is an author (All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island), a renowned actress, poet, playwright, educator, and youth advocate who has been steadfast in her commitment to incarcerated populations, both professionally and artistically, for over two decades. Peterson was recently featured in Ava DuVernay’s Emmy Award-winning documentary 13th (Netflix) and served as a consultant on Bill Moyers’ documentary RIKERS (PBS).
She has written several plays, including her one-woman show/tour de force, The Peculiar Patriot, from which she has performed excerpts in over 35 penitentiaries across the country. The provocative comedy, which runs through Oct. 28 at the Emerson Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, was recently awarded a generous grant from Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice Fund, and Peterson will tour it nationally into 2019.
The smart production follows Peterson’s character, Betsy LaQuanda Ross, over the course of several visits to her best friend Joanne, who is serving time in a women’s prison. As they catch up on friends and family, their humorous conversations highlight bigger issues including racism, the U.S. justice system, and mass incarceration
Peterson is currently developing several other TV and theater projects, including a stage adaptation of All Day.
We caught up with Peterson to discuss her experience teaching at Rikers Island, the biggest issues facing today’s youth, and how one can help initiate change.
Exhale: What life lessons did you learn from your Rikers students?
Liza Jessie Peterson: I was really impressed and made aware of their resilience. I was also reminded on a daily basis that their adolescent behaviors were being criminalized, especially for the Black and Latino youth.
What do you think is the greatest challenge facing today’s youth?
I think that the youth today are hurt by social media. It’s a tool that broadcasts false narratives. They must figure out what is real and not. Many are trying to find and hold onto their identity. They are also fighting hyper and toxic masculinity and racism. They are fighting for better education and a push to stop sanitizing the history of this country.
To what are you bringing awareness with 'The Peculiar Patriot'?
I have created a piece of work that sheds a light on mass incarceration and puts faces on the number of those who have been incarcerated.
We only ever hear bad stories going on in the prison system. Are there good things happening?
Things are happening, however slowly. They have eliminated solitary confinement for the youth in NYC. Many states now prohibit employers from asking about an arrest record. The age for criminal responsibility of juveniles has been raised. There is change happening. It is slow and still not enough.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to be a Peculiar Patriot?
We need to become aware of the issues and the things that are happening in society. If you have a family member or friend that is incarcerated, stay connected or get reconnected. Volunteer for causes that you care for. To make things happen or make change, we need to get involved.