Actor and playwright Liza Jessie Peterson arrived at her career in a roundabout way. And she still has the passion and fire of a new convert.
Born into a well-read household in Philadelphia, she enrolled at Georgetown University intending to become a diplomat.
But after graduation in the 1990s, she flew to Paris and became a fashion model instead. She walked the runways of Paris for three years, starting with her very first show for French fashion icon Jean Paul Gaultier.
Next, she moved to New York, where she found her voice and her studious purpose as first a performance poet and then actor-writer.
Peterson’s “The Peculiar Patriot,” which opens Thursday as part of the experimental Claude Purdy festival of solo shows at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, is the result of her inquiries and maturation as a writer and performer.
Like Petronia Paley, author and performer of Purdy festival kickoff “On the Way to Timbuktu,” Peterson “is a Renaissance woman who is doing an important kind of diplomacy with her work,” said Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director of Penumbra.
“Liza is connecting people inside and outside America’s prison system, and she’s doing it with humor, empathy and compassion.”
People behind bars
Written in multiple characters, “The Peculiar Patriot” uses a title that references slavery (“the peculiar institution”) to liken the U.S. incarceration system, which disproportionately affects people of color, to an ugly earlier history.
“These people behind bars, many of them are nonviolent prisoners of our drug wars,” she said. “If you have 2.3 million people incarcerated in America, and multiply that by their family members, you’re talking enough people to make a respectable nation. But these people are not foreigners. They are American, and their stories need to be told.”
Peterson based “The Peculiar Patriot,” which is being staged by New York director Lisa Rothe, on research she did without even realizing the purpose of her inquiries. After coming back from Paris, she acted in movies such as Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” and “Love the Hard Way,” which starred Academy Award winner Adrien Brody and Pam Grier. She also was part of the spoken-word scene at New York’s famed Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which led to Russell Simmons’ “Def Poetry Jam,” on which she made multiple appearances.
As her fame grew, Peterson was asked to conduct poetry workshops for juvenile offenders in New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail. The gig was supposed to be for three weeks but ended up lasting three years.
“These young people were hungry to learn and to have their voices heard,” she said. While she taught at Rikers Island during the weekdays, she traveled on weekends to visit someone serving a mandatory sentence.
“He was an ex-boyfriend, and had first been convicted for a nonviolent drug offense,” she said, explaining that he had used drugs and had been released on parole. “When he was tested by his parole officer, they found that he had dirty urine” from reusing drugs. “So, they sent him back in the pen to do the rest of his bid.”
Prison stories to mainstream
There are a handful of theater troupes dedicated to bringing mainstream theater to captive audiences across the country. Michelle Hensley’s Ten Thousand Things is renowned for taking works to prisons. But “The Peculiar Patriot” is different in that it’s a piece about prisoners and their families that is brought to mainstream audiences.
Peterson recalls the trips she made to see her then-boyfriend. Like hundreds of other people, she would gather at midnight in Columbus Circle in Manhattan, then take an eight-hour bus ride upstate. At the prison, she sat with him for several hours before taking the bus back to Manhattan.
Most of the visitors were women — mothers, wives, girlfriends — and children.
“Women are connectors,” Bellamy said. “This play is about the vital role that women play in keeping communities going and, as best they can, whole.
“That’s an important part of our mission at Penumbra, even as we have some fun.”