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Betty Reid Soskin’s Incredible Life Comes to the Stage in ‘Sign My Name to Freedom’

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The four Betty Reid Soskins of ‘Sign My Name to Freedom’ (L–R): Cathleen Riddley, Aidaa Peerzada, Lucca Troutman and Tierra Allen. (Alexa 'LexMex' Treviño)

Not one, not two, but four different Betty Reid Soskins take the stage in Sign My Name to Freedom, the world-premiere play that opened in San Francisco Friday night. And honestly, four still seems inadequate for its fascinating, multifaceted subject.

As this excellent and affecting production demonstrates, Betty Reid Soskin, the woman best known as a park ranger at Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park, has lived at least a dozen lives, if not more. Hers is a quintessentially Bay Area story, encompassing the Great Migration, grassroots arts and political activism, experiences of thinly veiled liberal racism, the independent hustle, the trap of the suburbs, dancing the pain away and, yes, doom-loop crime.

Little Betty (Tierra Allen) learns where life will take her from the 95-year-old Betty Reid Soskin (Cathleen Riddley) in ‘Sign My Name to Freedom’ at Z Space. (Alexa 'LexMex' Treviño)

The play opens with a robber breaking into the modest apartment of Soskin (Cathleen Riddley) who, at 95 years of age, adroitly fends him off. Her stocktaking of stolen items with her fellow park ranger friend Renee (Jasmine Milan Williams) turns into an inventory of her life. Soon, Little Betty (Tierra Allen) shows up for a reenactment, replete with billowy blue fabric and aerial dancers, of the hurricane of 1927 that blew Soskin’s family all the way from New Orleans to Oakland.

Little Betty and older Betty begin talking, in awe of each other: Little Betty for the places she’ll go, and older Betty for where she’s been. Throughout the mostly chronological telling of Soskin’s life, playing out like a beautifully written memoir on the stage, we meet two more Soskins. There’s Married Betty, who overcomes constant challenges, and, occupying much of Act Two, the songwriting, speech-delivering Revolutionary Betty.

(L–R) Lucca Troutman (Revolutionary Betty), Cathleen Riddley (Betty Reid Soskin), Tierra Allen (Little Betty) and Aidaa Peerzada (Married Betty) in ‘Sign My Name to Freedom’ at Z Space. (Alexa 'LexMex' Treviño)

It’s an achievement by playwright Michael Gene Sullivan and director Elizabeth Carter that this approach doesn’t get too crowded, or confuse the audience. By the end of the play, when these four Bettys have told Soskin’s remarkable story, their group conversation arrives at a mutual understanding of a life and what it’s lived for. Sullivan’s dialogue is smart but not showy, thoughtfully considered and frequently very funny.

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As Soskin, Riddley has her work cut out for her. Assessing her 95 years, she movingly retells prior challenges and regrets while standing strong. Allen starts out with a bit of childhood overplaying for Little Betty, but grows into the indispensable role.

Married Betty (Aidaa Peerzada) faces the most ups and downs, marrying music impresario Mel Reid, adopting one child and having three more, and raising them while running the family record store, Reid’s Records (if you thought Too Short was the first to sell records out of the trunk, think again). Married Betty moves to Walnut Creek and fights in vain at a school board meeting to change its white supremacist culture, and eventually divorces after Mel blows their money on gambling and other women.

L to R: Jeremy Brooks (Dancer/Ensemble), Marc Cunanan Chappelle (Dancer/Ensemble), Veronica Blair (Aerialist/Dancer), Nina Sawant (Aerialist/Dancer), Ahja Henry (Dance Captain/Dancer/Ensemble) and Markaila Dyson (Dancer/Ensemble) dance at a house party in ‘Sign My Name to Freedom’ at Z Space. (Alexa 'LexMex' Treviño)

Enter Revolutionary Betty (Lucca Troutman), who stands on Soskin’s kitchen table to announce her new identity: folk singing Civil Rights activist. When Married Betty explains that she moved to Walnut Creek for her family, Revolutionary Betty retorts: “If you gave a damn about your family, you wouldn’t’ve moved them out here with all these threaten-to-burn-your-house-down-’cause-they’re-suburban-crackers in the first place!”

Soskin’s songs — recently unearthed on reel-to-reel tapes stored in a box for decades — address police brutality, Black identity, and the spate of church burnings in the South, with shades of Odetta and Nina Simone. After we learn that Soskin stops writing songs amid the crack epidemic in order to save the family record store, we hear one of her most beautiful compositions, with complex jazz chords played on guitar by Troutman.

Lucca Troutman (Revolutionary Betty) plays and sings an original song by Betty Reid Soskin as Tierra Allen (Little Betty) listens in ‘Sign My Name to Freedom’ at Z Space. (Alexa 'LexMex' Treviño)

Additional songs by the show’s music director Daniel Savio propel scenes of tragedy and joy. A lonely saxophone soundtracks a ship explosion in Port Chicago that kills 320 people, including the predominantly Black servicemen chosen to handle dangerous ammunition and torpedoes. And an upbeat jazz number enlivens a house party that allows Laura Elaine Ellis’ choreography, and standout dancers Ahja Henry and Marc Cunanan Chappelle, to shine.

If anyone out there wants to throw a million dollars at this play, please do; a higher production budget could give it the polish it deserves. Mikiko Uesugi’s set design is sparse, just a bed, dresser, table and door, and the offstage band does an able job with the constraints of their size. Both should have more texture. Especially because, aside from a recurring, not-fully-fleshed-out thread involving Soskin’s son David (and a tad too much interpretive aerial dance for my personal tastes), the play itself is nearly flawless.

(L–R) Jeremy Brooks (Dancer/Ensemble), Ahja Henry (Dance Captain/Dancer/Ensemble), Veronica Blair (Aerialist/Dancer), Aidaa Peerzada (Married Betty), Marc Cunanan Chappelle (Dancer/Ensemble), Tierra Allen (Little Betty), William Brewton Fowler Jr. (Aerialist/Dancer), Nina Sawant (Aerialist/Dancer) and Lucca Troutman (Revolutionary Betty) in ‘Sign My Name to Freedom’ at Z Space. (Alexa 'LexMex' Treviño)

A key moment comes early, when the San Francisco Chronicle calls the apartment, hearing of the break-in and wanting to include Soskin in a story about the uptick in Bay Area crime. “No,” Soskin says, dreaming aloud of the day the newspaper calls instead to talk about harmful toxins in Richmond’s air and water, or the income inequality between the hills and the flatlands.

Soskin didn’t wait for the call. She told her own story, her way. With skill and heart, Sign My Name to Freedom brings it to a new audience that should leave the theater like I did: inspired.

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‘Sign My Name to Freedom’ runs at Z Space (450 Florida St., San Francisco) through April 13. Tickets and details here.

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