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The Peculiar Patriot

  • Theater, Drama
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw

Forget fireworks, forget barbecues: The most country-loving, U.S.A.-honoring thing you can do this July is to buy a ticket to The Peculiar Patriot uptown at the National Black Theatre. The best way to truly care about a nation is to heal it, and Liza Jessie Peterson’s solo play about black love, female friendship and the perversions of state power is a gorgeous part of that work. It also happens to be a visual marvel and a masterful example of character creation—a sort of fireworks, after all.

Peterson, who has taught kids at Rikers Island and was featured in Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th, plays the title character, LaQuanda Ross—nicknamed Betsy for her quilting—on a series of visits to see her friend Jo in prison. As she sits in Maruti Evans’s exquisite set, a surreal visitors’ center at a correctional facility, the back wall flickers with Katherine Freer’s black-and-white projections of Betsy riding a bus upstate or submitting to a search. She chats busily about friends that she and Jo have in common, sometimes even playing her own two love interests: one a man steeped in political action and the other just waking to his poetic nature.

In this rich, sweet, hilarious production, Peterson illuminates what life in the U.S. is like now that mass incarceration has so handily disenfranchised some and enriched others. She offers facts and figures, as you’d expect, but the takeaway is her astonishing warmth. In a cruel twist, we hear about the (real) trend of jails shifting towards video "visits." Betsy has been so vital and important to us in 90 minutes that we experience actual pain at the idea of her presence being snatched away. Multiply that by 2.3 million—the number of Americans behind bars—and you start to get a sense of the suffering built into this violent, malfunctioning machine.

National Black Theatre (Off Broadway). Written and performed by Liza Jessie Peterson. Directed by Talvin Wilks. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.

[Note: This is a review of the 2018 production of The Peculiar Patriot. The show returns for a brief encore run at the Minetta Lane Theatre on March 5–7, 2020.]

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Written by
Helen Shaw


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