Cultural Warrior Liza Jessie Peterson Fights The Powers That Be [Interview]
Amy Linden sits down with artist and prison reform advocate, Liza Jessie Peterson, to talk about her one-woman show, The Peculiar Patriot and fighting the powers that be.
In theory, Labor Day is meant to be a day off. But not for Liza Jessie Peterson. In fact, the Philly native and longtime Brooklynite has barely enough wiggle room to bike down to a local café for a quick bite and a glass of Cabernet before getting back to the business of being a cultural warrior.
Peterson, whose CV includes Def Poetry Jam, a NYC public school teaching artist, advocate for prison reform and most recently memoirist, (All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island) is readying the world debut of her one-woman show The Peculiar Patriot, in previews Sept. 13-16 and in production Sept. 17-Oct. 1t at Harlem’s National Black Theater.
Previously workshopped throughout the country, The Peculiar Patriot is an unflinching, and often mordantly funny look at injustice, racism and the big business of mass incarceration. Speaking to her art, Peterson offers, “There are class, economic and race issues at the core of this, you know as a person of color, a black woman in this world, walking the country in this skin I’m in, has always been an act of resistance for myself, my nephews, cousins, my father, my community.”
@Okayplayer sat down with the multifaceted creative to talk about using art to fight the powers that be, The Peculiar Patriot and more.
Okayplayer: Obviously you had no idea that [Donald] Trump would be in the White House, but is there significance to presenting the play at this juncture?
Liza Jessie Peterson: It feels even more electric and revolutionary. It feels like a potent act of resistance. Art is a weapon. To open the play now feels like a blade.
OKP: Have you had to change the script to keep up with the politics?
LJP: What’s so interesting was when I first wrote the play in 2003, during [George W.] Bush, the Rockefeller Drug Rules were still on the books, there was this whole census when inmates were being counted. They still are, but now there are challenges to it, so I definitely had to make some adjustments. There was a period under [Barack] Obama where some of the prison policies were on the table to be rolled back.
For example, he wanted to rescind the federal prison contracts and the policies for drug offenders, so there was a hope that there was a shift in consciousness regarding mass incarceration, so I had to do some adjustments. But now with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is completely revamping the war on drugs and totally eliminating Obama’s roll back on the proliferation of the private prisons, we have to make more money, and of course this is tied in to ICE and immigration—he’s got to fill the beds with brown bodies.
So with the Trump administration, the need for the message about mass incarceration. is even more urgent.
OKP: Can you talk about the recent move for warrantless searches?
LJP: From what I understand, it’s happening in D.C. and the Virginia area. But it’s laying the foundation for a total violation of Constitutional rights, but it hasn’t passed. So it’s like search and seizure laws, stop-and-frisk, violating the Fourth Amendment, stopping without cause… you’re going to be pulled over why? Because they can, they can search your car, they can say whatever they want, and for people of color, you have no resource, but now it’s being put on the books.
OKP: You’ve taught G.E.D. classes at Rikers, and worked in the trenches for many years. What keeps you going?
LJP: I was first introduced to the issue of the prison epidemic in 1998, before it was in the zeitgeist, and so when I started researching it literally lit a fire under me because I could not believe it was happening in our country, and it was not a major issue that people weren’t rallying against. As an artist, I knew I had a responsibility to bring attention to it. I went down the rabbit hole of private prisons and the draconian drug laws, even the non-violent ones – like this guy stole a golf club and he was serving life in prison in California — and as I was researching it for 14 years. The fire it lit under me hasn’t died because the issue hasn’t died, it hasn’t even mutated, it’s still there but now people are talking about it, but there’s more activism.
OKP: Has your focus changed in any way?
LJP: I don’t think the mission of the work has changed any, it’s just been heightened. It’s always been to ring the alarm and bring awareness to this human rights crisis, and for people to understand that there’s a whole nation of 2.5 million people behind bars and even more who are even more affected on parole or under government supervision.
There’s a whole swath of American citizens who are being shut out of civil rights, human rights, and to dehumanize them — these are people — so one of the purposes of the play is to ring the alarm and to humanize the statistics and allow people to connect not just with their minds but with their hearts. It’s one thing to read the statistics, but it’s another thing to be connected to a story, the humanity of the travesty – now it’s personal. You put a face to the tragedy.
OKP: Of late there’s been a renewed and national conversation about race, the legacy of the Confederacy and the rise of Nazis. What are your thoughts on this current climate?
LJP: You know we’ve always been under attack so there’s been this continual campaign. Now with the volume being turned up on white supremacy, it’s not a shock for people like me. It’s a shock for people who thought that we were post-racial America, for people who thought ‘oh, it’s not that bad,” but for black people, it’s always been bad, and we’ve been ignored and our cries have fallen on deaf ears for a long time. I’m just glad that now there are some conscious white people who have done the work and are connected to humanity and are putting their skin into the game and their lives on the line.
We have a group of wicked, Neanderthal people who are clinging to an idea that has given them privilege—that they’re better than everyone else—and so it’s quite fascinating to watch their fangs drop. We’ve always known who we’ve been dealing with, but now it’s so ugly now the rest of America is seeing who they are. It’s like what the Civil Rights Movement did for the world — we were always dealing with Jim Crow, and the lynchings and murderous campaign on our people — until the cameras were turned on. But now the mirror has been turned and they are clutching their pearls.
The Peculiar Patriot begins its production run on Sept. 17 and ends Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m. EST. You can buy your tickets here.
Amy Linden is a veteran music and arts critic and journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous outlets including XXL, Vibe, The New York Times and People. Follow her (and us!) on Twitter @NotForNothin59.