She goes by the historically freighted name of Betsy LaQuanda Ross, and we get to know her pretty well over the course of “The Peculiar Patriot.’’
For one thing, Betsy has personality to burn and is not the sort to hold anything back. For another, Liza Jessie Peterson, who created and portrays Betsy (and a few other characters) in this powerful solo show, is delivering a richly layered, all-out performance of the sort you tend to remember.
But Peterson clearly wants us to think about the people whom we don’t see onstage: the ones behind bars. Her goal is to expand our awareness of the racial injustice that undergirds mass incarceration in the United States, and the writer-performer has a disheartening amount of material to work with. Consider just two telling bits of data: African-Americans are imprisoned at a rate more than five times that of whites, according to the NAACP, and blacks account for more than a third of the nation’s total prison population.
“The Peculiar Patriot’’ incisively dramatizes the impact this wide-scale imprisonment is having on the African-American community, as measured by promise unrealized, families disrupted, and lives derailed — and sometimes cut tragically short. As Peterson turns a searing spotlight on racism of both the systemic and individual, day-to-day kind, she also delivers a scathing, politically pointed indictment of the greed that has sped the growth of the prison-industrial complex. “Yes, crime does pay, for certain people and certain communities,’’ says Pablo, a man just released from prison whom Betsy is dating.
Directed by Talvin Wilks, “The Peculiar Patriot’’ is structured as a series of visits by Betsy to a friend in a women’s prison. Peterson faces the audience while seated in a drab prisoner visiting room (designed by Maruti Evans, who also did the lighting) that features 10 small tables arranged in pairs, with video monitors hanging on either side of the stage. Images periodically flood across the rear wall (Katherine Freer is the projections designer): of Betsy going through a pre-visit security check, of inmates milling about a prison yard, of police officers roughing somebody up.
Betsy has a big heart (she’s working on a quilt whose squares represent those she cherishes, including some who’ve lost their freedom), a wide-awake conscience, and a gift for offering scalding opinions in vividly memorable language. She is an endlessly engaging narrator, regaling her friend with accounts of her relationship with Pablo and the efforts to reach out to her by her ex, Curtis, recently incarcerated for a parole violation.
As she imparts news and gossipy tidbits from their neighborhood to her unseen friend, Joann, including information about arrests and imprisonments of people they both know, a portrait emerges of a community destabilized by the criminal justice system’s application of a double standard. To cite one instance, a straight-arrow youth who seemed to have a bright future has been sent away for 15 years for selling drugs, with most of the neighborhood certain that the police planted the drugs on him as revenge, because he took cellphone video of officers shooting an unarmed boy on a subway platform, then testified about it in court.
At a couple of points in “The Peculiar Patriot,’’ Betsy unleashes a rapid-fire recitation of facts and statistics; you can sense Peterson shoehorning information into her play, as if she can’t help quantifying her anger. But for the most part she keeps the play firmly anchored in story and character. For all its intensity, “The Peculiar Patriot’’ is laced with humor. Crucially, Peterson takes pains to maintain a certain narrative logic when the play touches upon issues like racial profiling, the impact of a felony conviction on job prospects, disparities in drug sentencing between black and white, police brutality, the privatization of prisons, and the economic benefits that flow to the rural, mostly white communities where many prisons are located. (“As you hear the handcuffs go ka-klink, you hear the cash register go cha-ching,’’ Betsy observes bitingly.)
There’s nothing abstract about these issues to Betsy or to Peterson, a writer-actress-teacher who for more than two decades has been walking the walk when it comes to advocacy of prisoners’ rights, and who has performed excerpts of “The Peculiar Patriot’’ at three dozen penitentiaries across the nation. Both her writing and her performance make clear that Peterson doesn’t just know her subject but feels it, on a lived, bone-deep level. By the end of “The Peculiar Patriot’’ she has made the case, about as forcefully as it can be made, that, in Betsy’s words: “It really is a different set of rules for us.’’
THE PECULIAR PATRIOT
Written and performed by Liza Jessie Peterson. Directed by Talvin Wilks. Production by National Black Theatre and Hi-Arts. Presented by ArtsEmerson at Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Emerson Paramount Center, Boston, through Oct. 28. Tickets $60, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin