Written by Johnny Van Patten, artist and Linkage Community member.
Thursday, February 2, 2023: I was invited to the preview event for The Peculiar Patriot at the Keene Theater in Ann Arbor. As we started the program, there was a warning of the effect of the content we were about to see, letting us know to take care of ourselves if there was anything that was going to trigger us. I found this beneficial.
"Some of the sites, sounds, and situations of actual prison film coverage can trigger PTSD for us ex-prisoners."
The film, Angola Do You Hear Us? Voices from a Plantation Prison, began explaining the who and the what of the play, The Peculiar Patriot, and how it came about. It was written and performed by Liza Jessie Peterson. She spoke about her experience with teaching in the system and her experience with Rikers Island. It went into a scene of Angola prison where she was going to perform the play and showed how it was shut down because it was so real that the prisoners responded and made the corrections officers feel unsafe. It was a powerful message of truth.
Linkage members performed some songs, spoken word, poems, and even a skit inspired by the work of Liza Jessie Peterson. I sang a song I wrote about quarantine coming into prison titled "Time Is Stuck Somewhere". All the pieces performed that evening were very powerful and emotional. There was an emphasis on the humanity of the prisoners and it resonated with all those who came out to experience it.
Saturday, February 11, 2023: Linkage members were invited to a dinner before the showing of The Peculiar Patriot at the Detroit Public Theatre that evening. This was by far the largest gathering of Linkage members to date. We had about 17 people from the PCAP/Linkage community. We socialized with people who have lived in our shoes and experienced the transition into both living in the free-world and the art-world as a free person.
"For most of us ex-prisoners, these kinds of things can be very awkward as we struggle with being social after being locked up for so long."
I found it rather comforting to be around creative people who have been through the same situations I have. All along Sarah Unrath and Sarah Hebert-Johnson were awesome hosts and made everybody feel comfortable. This is second nature to them as they are part of PCAP and that is one of the biggest things that they do both inside and outside the prison; making prisoners feel like human beings is kind of their thing! We had an awesome time at dinner and then headed over to the show.
Upon walking into The Peculiar Patriot at the Detroit Public Theatre, we were welcomed with smiling faces from Frannie Shepherd-Bates, representing Shakespeare in Prison, and Asia Johnson, who was the host for the evening. Looking behind those smiling faces, there was a giant wall displaying artworks from Linkage members professionally exhibited with information on how to purchase some of this beautiful art.
The play itself, I found to be funny, real, truthful, painful, heartbreaking and very eye-opening for both people who have experienced incarceration, and people who have not. Some of the standouts for me as an ex-prisoner were the gun towers that were displayed in pictures, sounds of buzzers and doors letting people in and out of lockup situations. There was some film of some actual prison fights that will wake up your senses and show you how dangerous it really is on the yard.
"It reminded me of where I once was and it opened the door for people who never have been there to see what it's like."
The show itself was awesome and well executed as a series of skits. With one person speaking to another and only one person on stage, you felt as if there was somebody else there or at times if you were that other person yourself. The visuals in the background gave it the perfect effect.
I was asked to sit on the panel after the show for some post-show Q&A, myself with 10 years behind bars and another female who had 20 years behind bars. There were some very honest questions from people who just didn't know about prison. They wanted to know more because the play had struck a chord with them and I think they honestly wanted to help in some way. For the most part the questions seem to lean towards answers that were very negative. The majority of prison experience is very negative.
"The thing that stood out to me was one man asked a question directly to me. He asked me if I could name one positive that I took from the prison experience."
I got to be real honest with you, I had to pause and think about that. As a model prisoner who was very active in recovery and facilitating self-help programs for nine and a half years on the inside, helping men to make better decisions thus making the world a safer place, I struggled with the question and I probably shouldn't have. Then the answer came to me; my faith and belief in God taught me a valuable lesson. My deepest, darkest, and worst moments of my life are now the greatest gift I have as a survivor, I am able to reach out to people who normally would not be able to relate with others but because of my experience. I was able to share how I got through it. My answer in the end would be that God has used my worst moments to glorify His name; that it was never about me but it was about that next person who needs help.
From beginning to end, I believe my Linkage experience with The Peculiar Patriot was just mind-blowing and thought provoking.