Friday, July 20, 2018

NY Theater Review: The Peculiar Patriot TOP PICK

Liza Jessie Peterson. Photo: Garlia C. Jones-Ly

The Peculiar Patriot
Written and performed by Liza Jessie Peterson
Directed by Talvin Wilks
National Black Theatre
Through July 29

By Lauren Yarger
We all get a chance to pull up a seat at a table in the visitor's room of a prison in Liza Jessie Peterson's gripping look at incarceration, The Peculiar Patriot, getting a remount at Dr. Barbara Ann Teer's National Black Theatre.

Hi-Arts co-produces the production, which recently received a $100,000 grant from the Agnes Gund’s Art for Justice Fund, Playwright Peterson stars in the passionate one-woman drama directed with precision by Talvin Wilks.

Peterson is Betsy LaQuanda Ross (her moniker is the inspiration for the play's title), who regularly visits incarcerated friends and family members. Entering the visiting room (starkly designed and lighted by Maruti Evans), Betsy interacts with guards who frisk her down, greets other visitors their seeing loved ones and then focuses on boosting the morale of her best friend who has about two more years to go on her unjust sentence. Betsy brings news of the woman's three children, happenings in their neighborhood and updates about her own relationship with new beau, the good looking, poetic, political philosopher Pablo. Begrudgingly, she also gives updates about her ex, Curtis, whom her BFF seems to feel is somehow in the picture despite her protests that he is old news.

Now, re-read that last paragraph and remember that this is a one-woman play. Peterson is so absorbing in her portrayal, that we could swear we just witnessed a conversation between two characters sitting at the table. All of the people mentioned come to life in our imagination, or by character changes as Peterson, helped by sound effects (Luqman Brown, design) and projections (designed by Katherine Freer) also portrays Pablo and Curtis.

The huge problems of mass incarceration, from African Americans being wrongly convicted or getting stiffer sentences than white offenders to the profit-motivated consequences of outsourcing prisons and their services to private companies is covered in the conversations without becoming preachy (the more politically motivated agenda comes in a forced talk-back session that follows every show). The set up might be different, but message is that slavery is alive and well thanks to today's prison system.

Like her patriotic namesake, Betsy sews. She recently returned to quilting, an interest she picked up from a woman who was a positive interest in her life. The woman helped her through time in detention and juvenile hall and steered the daughter of a black panther toward pursuing an existence outside of prison walls, Betsy's quilt, which she brings with her on the visits, includes squares for those who are incarcerated. Her best friend's has a full moon to show her potential, a shooting star for each of her three beloved children and a yellow ribbon to show that she will be coming home soon, The lives of those incarcerated become woven together with Betsy's as her needle sews s story of monotony, injustice and despair.

Though much of the 90 minutes is intense and deeply moving, Peterson keeps the tale from becoming depressing by including a lot of humor. The story rings true, not only because of the exceptional writing, acting and directing, but because Peterson brings real-life experience to the tale. She worked for nearly two decades at Riker's Island in various capacities. Peterson also was in Ava DuVernay’s documentary "13th" and was a consultant on the Bill Moyers’ PBS documentary "RIKERS."

The production at the National Black Theatre, 2031 Fifth Avenue between 125th and 126th streets in Harlem, runs through July 29 prior to a tour planned this fall.  Performances are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday at 4 pm. Tickets are $35:

Additional information:

Additional credits:
LaToya Murray-Berry (Costumes); Belynda Hardin (Props)

--Language (and the "N" word is used)
-- God's name used in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York. Shifting from reviewing to producing, Yarger owns Gracewell Productions, which produced the Table Reading Series at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT. She trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run. She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She wrote reviews of Broadway and Off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She was a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice president and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (producer of the annual awards ceremony) and a member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, serving as Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter. Yarger was a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2022 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women or people of a certain race are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide, or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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