With its curving balustrade, the small balcony suggests box seats as the drama of Crown Heights unfolds below— sirens, laughter, life on a block of turn-of-the-century limestone buildings. Overlooking a park, it is a recharge station for self-described
When we meet, it is summer, just as she is to start rehearsals for the play. She is radiant and welcoming. Her breezy dress, dipped in the colors of sunset, compliments her coronal mass of sun-kissed curls. Fitting as we take the deep dive into her Kemetic studies and Ra energy. "Ra is the sun disk; represents concentrated, undiluted, undifferentiated solar energy; light manifested, the
But before all that, she was Lee Lee, a West Philadelphia Girl Scout, raised in the Episcopal Church. She was William and Helen's baby girl, Leslie's little sis and the dance group partner and cousin of Pebbles and Kim. "We had our little routines; thought we were Destiny's Child before Destiny's Child. My mother made our costumes," she laughs. "I grew up on 48th and Osage." Not far from the spot where a bomb dropped on the MOVE compound at 6221 Osage Avenue would claim the lives of six adults and five children on May 13, 1985. “I always had a passion for fairness and justice, and I’m a Libra too, I’m cosmically, astrologically wired that way. I was always interested in the plight of black people. My mother made us watch Roots as a family. I was a little girl, and I just remember being mortified. I went back to school fired up. They had to call my mother to come get me." All pre-teen indignation and scorn, she gave her white teachers a piece of her young,
She was in high school when then-Mayor Wilson Goode authorized the unthinkable— a Philadelphia police helicopter dropping C-4 explosive on the headquarters (located in a residential area) of the Black liberation group, MOVE, purportedly to destroy only the bunker on the roof and flush out the inhabitants. Only one woman and child
High school was an awakening, she says. "Subconsciously, the MOVE bombing had an impact, it was so shocking, infuriating, but what politicized me was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Her boyfriend introduced her to Minister Louis Farrakhan's speeches. "I thought whoa, wait; I never heard black people talk like this before. Mm-hmm."
Then at seventeen, she lost her beloved mother. "I was in my senior year, so I'm applying to colleges, I'm getting acceptance letters, it was the pre-prom season, pre-graduation season, and my sister, Leslie, who was nine years older than me, just stepped right in; she filled a big gap. I was her sister-daughter; she was my sister-mom." Sadly, Leslie, author of over 40 books, including the popular Vampire Huntress Legends series would pass away in 2012, eight years after their father, William.
After high school, Liza brought her West Philly realness to Georgetown University, a bastion of whiteness in the Chocolate City, Washington, DC.. She studied International Relations and interned on Capitol Hill. “I was thinking about law and politics, though I knew I didn’t want to be a politician. I was interested in becoming a lobbyist since I worked for a black think tank and saw that this is how policy gets influenced—through lobbyists.”
“There was a close-knit community of black students, the Black Student Alliance. I ran for president my first year there, and I won. I was like ‘BSA what y’all doing? We should be having black study groups not just doing fashion shows, you know, socialite stuff. We need to be learning about who the fuck we are up in this piece!’ I was militant, radical. I brought scholars like Ivan Van Sertima to campus. I tried to bring Farrakhan, but they wouldn't give me the money,” she says cracking up. “But I did try. It was really challenging to be immersed in so much whiteness in a black city.” She seethed when as a freshman, she was required to take a course, European Civilization, yet there wasn’t a single course in African American Studies, not even as an elective. (A program wouldn’t be instituted until 2003, and it only became a department in 2016.) “I just got so angry,” she says emphatically. "Where were my people? My history? Where is Africa in this equation? So I had to take my African American Studies classes at Howard."
She wanted a break after four years of hard work at Georgetown. “I remember all the white kids, the rich kids after graduation, they were going to Tibet and backpacking the Himalayas; all this exotic shit, right? So I had my little
Six-foot-one, lithe and beautiful, she headed to New York City—where her best friend was
She didn’t know yet that she was an actress, writer, and poet, that hers was a powerful voice. “The world of modeling opened me up to explore creative expression.” But she didn’t like being judged on her looks. “That was really problematic for me—being the beautiful model who just giggles. I always had a big mouth. I still had a lot of West Philly edges to me, so Paris helped to smooth those edges out,” she laughs heartily. She hopped from Paris to Milan and back to New York where she did the shows for a few years until unfulfilled she turned to acting. A “dirt cheap” copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare from The Strand Bookstore, copped because Othello had a black character, ignited her love of language. “It read like poetry,” she says. “I was so turned out by the language and the story; I dove into it. I remember writing down Othello’s monologue because it was so passionate. I wanted to speak it. I thought I want to perform this." She’d seen Shakespeare in the Park, and she learned of the National Shakespeare Conservatory's eight-week summer intensive. Waitressing at the time, she “saved up my coins, got some financial aid, and went to study and perform in the Catskills. I LOVED it,” she exclaims. When she performed her first scene, as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, the acting teacher stood and said, “that is the best Cleopatra I’ve ever seen in my life. Who are you?” She'd given it her all— “it gave me a channel to tap into my pain. It was very therapeutic to work through the trauma of my mother’s death. It helped me get in touch with the pain in a way that I had not experienced before. It opened me up. To be able to give it over to a character was liberating. Mm-hmm."
Though she'd already stopped eating pork when her Muslim boyfriend declared he wasn’t down for kissing lips that touched the swine, it was her mother’s early death from metastatic cancer that inspired Liza to stop eating red meat. She was seventeen and searching for answers. “What is this thing that took my mother? Toxins in the body feed cancer cells. Well, what are the foods that create the toxins? I discovered that red meat takes the longest to pass through the system and that with all the stuff they inject into the beef, that gets into the body. That was the spark, and it grew.”
After moving to New York, she was “in need of a mother,” and several women, as Leslie had, stood in the gap. Amy Olatunji (wife of master drummer Baba Olatunji) became her “spiritual mother, an elder who mothered and nurtured me," she says. "She gave me tips on
Queen Afua and the path of the Sacred Woman was a natural progression. “I did sixteen weeks—soldier-like boot camp. That changed my life. It heightened the medicine woman in me and the awareness of health and womb care connected to my Kemetic ancestors and legacy. She changed my life and how I eat. It’s a lifestyle. I came out of Sacred Woman a medicine woman warrior.” Years later she would share her knowledge with incarcerated adolescent girls and those in a re-entry program designed to “help them not
She gets choked up as she remembers the late Janet Carter, a founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem,
Liza joined the community of underground artists at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the early years of their poetry slams, before the spoken word movement of the 1990's made its way to the screen in Slam and HBO's Def Poetry—she appeared in both. She's also had roles in Spike Lee's Bamboozled with Damon Wayans and Jada Pinkett Smith and Love The Hard Way with Adrien Brody and Pam Grier. Over the years, she's worked with an illustrious coterie of progressive-minded kindred spirits including Nona Hendryx, Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets and Toshi Reagon on her festival, Word*Rock* & Sword to name but a few.
Like many independent artists, Liza needed to supplement her working artist's income and in 1998 accepted an invitation to teach a poetry workshop for adolescent boys. Little did she know that Island Academy, where she was assigned, was the high school
A Correctional Officer hipped her to just where she'd landed, saying of the almost exclusively Black and Latino inmate population, "This is the new plantation, and they're the crops, that's the new cotton." He told Liza to search "prison industrial complex" online. "I didn't know. It started me down the abyss of statistics and information about the privatization of prisons and how it morphed out of slavery. I was Google Mommy. Every article took me deeper in the rabbit-hole. At the time my boyfriend, a former drug dealer, had violated parole and was serving time."
And so began her plunge into to the penal system in America. "So now, I'm with the kids during the day, and I'm on the bus visiting him on the weekends." When he transferred to a federal prison in Pennsylvania, she'd take the five-hour bus ride to see him. She looked at the mass of people—hundreds gathered at Manhattan's Columbus Circle at midnight— queueing up to board the fleet of buses that would take them to visit their incarcerated loved ones at various facilities. "I was so impacted by what I considered a tremendous love story. This hidden community that looks normal, but walks with a heavy burden. Lining up at 12'o'clock at night with bags and food and care packages and children to visit this incarcerated nation— loving through barbed wire," she says. "Then I'm on the visiting room floor, and you bond with a community of women that you see every weekend. Oh, hey Cheryl, how you doin?"
She remembers lamenting the weight of it all: working with the boys, anxiously awaiting phone calls and letters from her man, going upstate to see him, and getting new information about the system itself. "My life was immersed in prison. So I had my little pity pot, and my friend said, 'Girl, get off my phone, you have a story to tell.' When I stepped out of myself and looked back at my journey, I was like yeah, I've been witness to something that needs testimony. I just started writing a monologue, and that was the genesis of The Peculiar Patriot."
Initially, theaters weren't receptive to the project, and in frustration, she "took the play to prison.” She adds, “it was so well received, that I came off the grid in the New York theater and performance world and toured the play for three years exclusively in prisons. Rikers wanted it and Houston Correctional Facility, so I thought I'd try another facility.” And another until she’d toured it in 35 penitentiaries across the country. She'd felt “invisible” in the theater world, but had "a feeling of validation" when she performed in the prisons. "The inmates, the incarcerated population, they saw me. They felt invisible to the rest of the world because they’re behind the wall. When I went there, I let them know I SEE you; that this play is about YOU. We both had a connection to invisibility, and we both validated each other seeing each other. I think that’s what kept me performing in prison for so long because I was being seen and loved. And I was seeing and loving. It was a very symbiotic relationship.” This was before Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow and Ava DuVernay’s film, 13th were released. "Thank God for them,” Liza says, “for catapulting the issue of mass incarceration into the zeitgeist.” She’s grateful for the prison launch, but is eager to bring the piece—and its unflinching truth to a broader audience.
Between all this, she took on a full-time teaching gig at Riker’s Academy in 2008. Yes, she knew the ropes a bit already, but this wasn’t a single poetry class, she was to teach her charges, whom she affectionately called her "
She becomes reflective. "The last twenty years of my life have been so immersed in prison—prison advocacy, working with kids, in the trenches doing the work and even though I'm not officially at Rikers anymore, I'm still doing court advocacy for some of the kids; I
"There’s a bigness about me on stage, that’s where I get to use the expansiveness of my body and my energy, but in my every day, I’m a little shy." Though she's an incredibly engaging conversationalist and masterful listener—evidenced by her spot-on characterizations—she finds it hard to strike up conversation. And she is empathic, intuitive and deeply spiritual. "That comes from losing my mother and having to discover another way to communicate with her. I was introduced to the ancestor realm very early; the spirit realm because that’s where Mommy was. So I had to dream about her or pray to her. I was training my ear to hear messages from her. I needed that. I’d pray and ask for things, and they’d show up through other people. So I have an awareness of signs, how spirit moves through people. I’m super sensitive, but I also have," she laughs, "a really dark sense of humor. I think that’s why I was able to find the humor in the rugrats' crazy shenanigans. I probably go more towards the humor than towards the heartbreak."
She's not certain what's next, but is excited by the possibilities. "I don’t know what my advocacy will continue to look like with the kids. I would like to bring them along with me wherever I go. I’m putting this in the universe—my book is turned into a TV series. I want to hire some of my kids to work in production and some as actors. I wanna bring some of my little rugrats into the industry." Mm-hmm.
1. My ankh. Custom-made by Baba Heru, it is magnificent. "The top of the ankh is the goddess Nut she’s the goddess of the sky and of the celestial stars. She swallows the moon and gives birth to the sun. She’s the cycle of the moon the sun and the stars. She’s being held up by the feathers of Ma’at, which is truth, justice and balance. Reciprocity. The cross on the ankh is the eye of Heru and the eye of Tehuti, the ancient Kemetic eye. This," she says, pointing to the center, "is Het Heru, who Aphrodite gets her identity from. She rules beauty and music. She’s Venus, the divine nurturer which is why she’s always got the cow horn. Then Khepera, the scarab, which represents rebirth, regeneration, it’s being held up by the cosmic star of Nut and at the bottom is a lotus flower that is opening up. On the other side, it’s the same thing except here you have the eyes of Heru and there the wings of Ra. Aten Ra is the sun we see. Amen Ra is the solar power and Ra is the sun energy—we see it, we don’t see it, it’s all Ra."
2. My ancestor altar. Private, it holds her ankh, photos of her departed beloveds and other sacred items.
3. Family photographs. A gorgeous 1931 photo of her father, William Peterson at age six surrounded by his older sister Julia and younger sister, Hettie hangs on her living room wall, other photos dot the mantel and more hold hallowed ground on her altar.
4. Journals. Both hers and her mother's. She found her voice by journaling, encouraged to do so by her mom. "My mother used to write in her journals, Dear God, She was such a healer, always absorbing other people's problems and having their issues heavy on her heart. So almost everything in her journal was about wanting to see others get better. She never asked for anything for herself." Liza cherishes her mom's three humble, spiral notebooks. And she keeps all of her own musings from the adolescent diary with lock and key to leather bound artisan journals.
5. My ring. "I’ve had this ring for years, 15, maybe twenty years. Got it from Dr.
6. My earrings. Rarely is she without her "authentic, circa 80's shrimp earrings, my first pair of big hoops when I was a teenager. Or my bamboo. They're my hood earrings." And she always wears one of many feather earrings. "My coming into consciousness earrings," she says. "Paying homage to my Native American ancestry and paying homage to Ma’at, my Kemetic legacy with the feather which reminds me to stay light." She shares that in Kemetic tradition, upon death one's heart is weighed against a feather on a balance scale and must be as light as the feather
7. Children’s laughter. "I’ll be up here and I’ll hear them screaming
8. Red wine. "And I mean a gooood bottle; in my next life I want to be a sommelier. I’m such a wine snob with my friends. I really like Tempranillos, I like Mencía; I like some Cabernet, I like some Pinot Noir. Malbecs can be heavy, but I like one with a peppery finish. I know that it must be an aphrodisiac because I love red wine."
9) Kale. She's been loving it long before it became the It green.
10) Black Love stories. "My all time favorite is Claudine. I love the scene where the daughter is in love with Abdul and she’s pregnant and she beats her with the brush and then she hugs her like we can work it out baby and then Claudine falls in love with James Earl Jones, the garbage guy and they’ve got this blue collar thing going on with her and the kids and they have to hide the gifts that he buys her from the white social worker lady. I just love that story. Oh, I could watch that movie a thousand times. I love seeing black people kissing on the train and holding hands. I love seeing black couples' public displays of affection. I love seeing that. We don’t see enough of it. I love seeing black love, whether it's on film, whether it’s on the train, I just love seeing black love."