By Heather Rosen
You don’t know Betsy LaQuanda Ross, the appropriately-named “patriot” in Wooly Mammoth’s moving performance of “The Peculiar Patriot.” We may have thought we knew people like Betsy – black women whose parent was incarcerated, who eventually ended up in juvenile detention or prison. We might have assumed they were taught a life of crime, but playwright Liza Jessie Peterson offers us a much different perspective - in a very entertaining way.
Through brilliant storytelling using both dialogue and a bit of slam poetry, “Betsy”, who is played by Peterson, tells her story “girlfriend to girlfriend” and parts of it are laugh-out-loud funny. The show begins with Betsy being searched before being allowed to visit her friend who is incarcerated in a women’s prison. The set is sparse - there is just a table, some chairs and a few TVs showing security camera footage. But throughout the show, large video screens behind the stage come to life and give us a close up on what is going on behind the scenes – the searches, Betsy’s facial expressions after leaving the prison, and much more. Powerful sound effects also amplify what we are seeing.
Betsy walks onstage, sits down at a table, and launches into a very entertaining dialogue with her female friend, who is supposed to be sitting on the other side of the table. We never actually see or hear her friend, in fact, the audience is sitting where her friend is supposed to be.
Betsy tries to make her friend (and us) laugh each time she comes to visit – sharing neighborhood gossip and recalling funny memories. But in between the funny stories, we learn that Betsy’s friend is an incarcerated mother of 3 young children who rarely get to see their mother. We also learn Betsy’s own sad story and the stories of several of their friends, including a neighborhood boy who after winning a college scholarship, was arrested and put in jail. And he is innocent – the police were just seeking revenge because he testified against them in another case.
Betsy shares hilarious letters from her imprisoned ex-boyfriend in his desperate voice, and respectfully recounts the sage words of her current boyfriend in his brave, determined voice. Each of her voices are part of the same narrative of a broken system that is creating an endless cycle of addiction and incarceration. Then Betsy drops the bomb – she tells her friend that she got onto the internet and found a pile of evidence that there is a financial motive for putting more and more people into prisons.
Peterson’s performance makes you think and feel in a very significant way. And if you are moved to take action, Woolly Mammoth gives you several ways to do it – you can donate books to prisoners, and “Murals Of Hope” are displayed throughout the theater – artwork made by children whose fathers are imprisoned, with instructions on how to donate or get involved. This show is both entertaining and enlightening and definitely worth your time and attention.
Photo Credit: Liza Jesse Peterson
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