Writing Class Field Trip to “Peculiar Patriot” Play

Molly Geaney ’19

On October 24th, Mr. Williams’ 12th grade Writing to Change the World class attended The Peculiar Patriot, a one-woman show playing at the Paramount Theatre in Boston. The play, starring and written by Liza Jessie Peterson, explores the impacts of mass incarceration on the lives and communities that it disrupts.

In The Peculiar Patriot, protagonist Betsy LaQuanda Ross undertakes a series of visits to her best friend, a mother who is serving a sentence in a faraway upstate prison. LaQuanda also researches mass incarceration in preparation for political discussions with her boyfriend and discovers that incarceration in the U.S. is big business. She describes America in terms of “hustlers,” and while everyone is running some kind of scheme, black people are the ones paying the heaviest price. Money (and not justice or public safety) is the driving incentive to build prisons and fill them up and to exploit the labor of those imprisoned. LaQuanda finds that comparisons between prison and slavery are not metaphorical, but very much real. With their basic rights stripped away, often for life, long after they have served their time, the incarcerated are not just prisoners; they are modern day slaves.

Throughout the play, Betsy LaQuanda Ross works on a quilt that represents each member of her family and community who has been incarcerated. In the final moments of the play, LaQuanda holds the finished quilt to her heart while the quilt squares of other incarcerated people fill the walls of the room. Her quilt is meant to be a new kind of American flag: one that represents the ugly side of a transactional country and the human cost of American greed.

The Peculiar Patriot does an incredible job of humanizing mass incarceration. As we saw in a classroom reading called the “Collapse of Compassion,” numbers tend to numb us. Not only is mass incarceration so separated from mainstream society, but it is also hard to visualize when most of us do not know what a prison even looks like or personally know a prisoner. The play allows those who do not experience this injustice to step inside the broken yet beautiful lives of the people who are affected by this devastating institution and to feel some of their pain.

Classmates later remarked on how much energy and life that Peterson brought to her performance. The play was beautiful and gave us a lot to think about as we examine our own privilege and the roles that we play in a nation driven by profit.