Betty Reid Soskin's Untold Musical Past Comes to Life at Brava Theater

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National Park Service Ranger Betty Reid Soskin at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Center in Richmond in 2017. Original songs she wrote in the late 1960s have been transformed into a theater production debuting Oct. 16 at Brava Theater.  (Courtesy Luther Bailey/National Park Service)

When Betty Reid Soskin talks about her music, it can sound like she’s recalling a mysterious, long-lost friend who arrived without warning and departed just as suddenly.

She became a khaki-clad icon in her ninth decade as the oldest active National Park Service ranger, but Soskin has lived many lives. Like an underground river, music has surfaced only rarely, at moments when her soul could no longer keep it contained.

A new musical based on anthems she wrote more than half a century ago, Sign My Name To Freedom: The Unheard Songs of Betty Reid Soskin, shines a light on her long-buried past as part of the New Roots Theatre Festival at Brava Theater Center Oct. 16-17. The story behind the show, which was created by 23-year-old San Francisco jazz vocalist Jamie Zee, is as surprising as the revelation that Soskin spent about a decade as a guitar-strumming singer-songwriter who embraced music as a vehicle for social change.

The tunes started to emerge unbidden after she experienced an emotional breakdown. Without any kind of ambition or plans to perform, Soskin “began writing music before I realized it,” she said. Facing extraordinary pressures raising four Black children in the majority-white suburb of Walnut Creek, she turned to songwriting for succor. This was the early 1960s, when a local principal hosted an elementary school fundraiser where he thought nothing of performing in blackface in a minstrel-style show. “I never did publish anything,” Soskin said. “It’s just that I think music was saving me.”

In many ways Soskin has never been more visible. Last month her 100th birthday was greeted by a massive wave of attention that focused mostly on her late-blooming work as a park ranger. After a lifetime of racial justice activism, she stepped into a new role to make sure that the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond encompassed the experiences of many different East Bay communities.

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If music was mentioned in her centennial celebration, it was usually in the context of her role launching the first Black-owned record store west of the Mississippi in 1945 with her husband Mel Reid, Reid’s Records in South Berkeley. East Bay artists also fondly remember her presiding over the Nu Upper Room in East Oakland in the early 1990s when it became a crucial incubator for Bay Area hip-hop talent. Did she ever think of picking up the microphone herself?

“I don’t think I even identified myself as an artist,” she said. “I was an administrator. I don’t think I recognized myself as a singer. That was just a phase I was going through.”

It was a phase that resonated with the time. As the singer-songwriter movement took shape at the end of the 1960s, Soskin began playing at colleges and community events around the region, channeling all of her anger, angst, pain and love into her songs. “I could sing things I couldn’t say,” she said. “If they were said, they would be too harsh. If they were sung, people would hear them.”

Just as suddenly as she started writing songs, Soskin put her music away in the early 1970s, resolutely closing that chapter of her life. It wasn’t until nearly five decades later in 2018 that documentary filmmaker Bryan Gibel came across a box of half-inch reel-to-reel tapes in her closet.

Gibel has spent the past five years filming her for a documentary-in-progress on her life (also tentatively titled Sign My Name to Freedom). He had the tapes transferred to CD and at first “she was afraid to listen,” Gibel said. “They were such a powerful part of her life and buried so deeply.”

Singers in rehearsal hold protest signs.
The cast of 'Sign My Name to Freedom' includes Mauressa Perkins, Marjorie Fraser, Alyx Enanoria, Jamie Zimmer, Linnani Simpson and Laura Ellis (left to right). (Susan Brown)

The resurrection of Soskin’s songs has proceeded quietly. In the first step, Gibel contacted bassist, composer and bandleader Marcus Shelby, who had interviewed Soskin while working on his 2006 Port Chicago suite about a World War II munitions disaster in the East Bay that killed 320 sailors and civilians, most of whom were Black. Discovering that his old friend was a musician came as a shock.

“These are like folk songs that Joan Baez could have done, authentic, earthy and of that time,” Shelby said. “‘Sign My Name To Freedom’ could have been a hit song. I don’t think she knows how great a singer she was.”

He arranged three of Soskin’s songs for the teenage big band he leads at the Community Music Center in the Mission District, and recruited budding jazz vocalist Jamie Zee to perform the material. The concert took place in May 2018 with little fanfare, and Gibel filmed the proceedings. That was the extent of the plan, but there’s no accounting for the Betty Factor.

“She came to every single rehearsal,” said Zee. “She wanted to connect with me and there was this universal pull like we were magnets. We were even wearing the same outfit!”

Soskin wanted to make sure that Zee understood the stories behind the songs and the context out of which the music emerged, so a steady flow of emails, letters and conversations followed. Before long, Soskin knew that Shelby had picked the right person to breathe new life into her music.

“I didn’t ever dream anyone could sing my songs,” Soskin said. “They are so personal. The first time I heard them, I was pretty much out of it for a couple of days.”

Zee’s performance played a crucial role in Soskin deciding to take the stage herself that December, when she joined the Oakland Symphony at the Paramount Theatre to sing “Your Hand In Mine,” her song about the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Meanwhile she and Zee struck up a close friendship, and Zee couldn’t shake the feeling that Soskin’s songs needed to stay in circulation.

Zee envisioned a multimedia musical production with visuals, singing, dancing and acting. Getting Soskin’s blessing for the project was the easy part. A graduate of the California Jazz Conservatory, Zee had the musical chops to interpret the songs, but creating a theatrical production was something else entirely.

Eventually, Zee found support from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, an organization that produces plays intended to promote cross-cultural dialogue and social justice while giving voice to communities of color and LGBTQ+ people. (Zee is Chinese American and nonbinary.) Sign My Name To Freedom is one of three new originals produced by the SFBATCO in the first annual New Roots Theatre Festival, which includes other five pieces developed by Bay Area BIPOC theater arts companies. Knowing she had a slot at Brava only increased the pressure on Zee, who handled all the heavy lifting solo.

“I wrote the script and found cast members,” Zee said. “I did all the set design, and, up until a month ago, all the stage managing. I plunged all the way in, and it’s consumed my whole life. That’s what happens when you meet Betty Reid Soskin.”

The musical explores the situations out of which Soskin’s songs bloomed, drawing on those long-buried recordings, interviews, and articles. With choreography by Laura Elaine Ellis and Joanna Haigood, arranging help from John Calloway, and a multigenerational cast of six, the work in progress isn’t so much a bracing message from a centenarian as a meditation on America’s stubbornly entrenched racial inequities.

“The premise is to encapsulate the metamorphosis in her life, portraying her friends, family, and things she has done,” Zee said.

While Sign My Name to Freedom releases Soskin’s songs back into the wild, the production also opens a window into the way her identity as a ranger has been enhanced by her previous life as an artist. The fact that no one heard her music, doesn’t mean those songs weren’t shaping her story all along.

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“She says that looking back on her artist self is like seeing the Betty hidden behind her eyes,” Gibel said. “She’s become an icon for a certain side of her life, but what’s driving the fame is all this incredible depth. That part hasn’t made it into the narrative, yet.”