Home News An extraordinary Bay Area icon’s life becomes a new musical

An extraordinary Bay Area icon’s life becomes a new musical

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Bay Area civil rights pioneer, songwriter and park ranger Betty Reid Soskin has lived many lives over her 102 years. In her 2018 memoir “Sign My Name to Freedom,” she talks about the many Bettys she has been during her extraordinary lifetime.

And in the world premiere musical that takes its name from the memoir, being presented by the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, those Bettys come face to face.

Civil rights figure and retired park ranger Betty Reid Soskin (center) is flanked by cast members of a new musical that centers on her life and music. Alexa “LexMex” Treviño/San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company

Born Betty Charbonnet in Detroit to a Louisiana Creole family in 1921, Soskin spent her early childhood in New Orleans before moving to Oakland at the age of 6. This was long before the major migration of African Americans to the Bay Area in World War II, during which time Soskin worked as a file clerk for a segregated shipyard workers union auxiliary.

She and her first husband, Mel Reid, founded Reid’s Records, which became a longtime Berkeley institution. In the 1950s they and their children became the first Black family in the all-white suburb of Walnut Creek, receiving death threats and hostility from their new neighbors. She became active in the local Unitarian Universalist Church and in the growing civil rights movement in the Bay Area, raising money for the Black Panthers and writing and singing powerful protest songs.

“I was in a place in my life where I had just suffered a mental break, and one of the ways I came out of that was by writing music,” Soskin recalls on a Zoom call from her Richmond home. “And when it was over, I put the songs in a box and put them away for 40 or 50 years.”

There’s an upcoming documentary film also named “Sign My Name to Freedom” about her life and her long-buried songs. It was only when Soskin was talking with Bryan Gibel, the film’s director and producer, that she asked offhand if he was interested in hearing some of the recordings she had in her closet. Before long, they became the focus of his documentary.

Later in life, Soskin worked as a field representative for Assembly members Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock and became active in planning for Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. It was where she became a park ranger at the age of 85. By the time she retired at age 100, she was the oldest national park ranger in the nation.

“Betty moves through life very much meeting the moment,” says Elizabeth Carter, the play’s director. “She doesn’t really plan forward. She meets the things that are in that time, something she either has to say or do. She very much lives in the present.”

The idea of creating a musical out of Soskin’s songs was suggested to SFBATCO by singer Jamie Zimmer, who’d become aware of her music after being brought in to participate in the documentary.

Longtime San Francisco Mime Troupe playwright and actor Michael Gene Sullivan was recruited to write the script for the show after performing in the musical “Twelfth Night” with Zimmer at SF Playhouse.

“One of the things that was heartening was that each step along the way, even when I only had the first scene written, Betty saw it,” Sullivan says. “And she was like, ‘How did you do that? You got everything in there.’ And it wasn’t everything. I had to cut huge amounts from her actual story. But it resonated enough with her that she was like, that’s what happened. She’s really the audience I’m writing this for, in many ways.”

Sullivan hit on the idea of having the different periods in Soskin’s life embodied by different actors, and these different Bettys would interact.

“I personally always hate it when I see a bio film or play and for the first half-hour the audience falls in love with the little kid version, and then they disappear, because the teenage version shows up,” Sullivan says. “You’re thinking, ‘who’s this person? I liked the kid!’ And so what I decided to do was when any of the versions of her enter the stage, they never leave. They then go on to consciously play the other people in her life.”

Everyone involved knows that if they can convey even a fraction of Soskin’s long and extraordinary life, it should make for a powerful and inspiring story.

“My hope is that in this play everyone will see themselves and their opportunity or possibility to make change that you didn’t think you could do,” Carter says.

“On some level, Betty still doesn’t understand what’s the big deal,” Sullivan says. “Being an activist when you simply are that way, when being involved in the world is the way that you were raised and the way that you feel that it’s like full citizenship, it doesn’t feel weird. Through this whole process, the documentary and the concerts of her music and the play, she’s still like, but this is just who I am. The question is why isn’t everybody doing this? It shouldn’t be special.”

Soskin has grown used to being asked to speak about her life, but that doesn’t mean she sought out the spotlight. She attended President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and received a commemorative presidential coin from him in 2015. In 2021 El Cerrito’s former Juan Crespi Middle School was renamed for her.

“It’s really kind of strange, because I don’t know whether the person that is so celebrated even exists,” Soskin says. “I have no idea what gave me the strength to do what I did. I don’t think that I ever planned to do anything. I simply went on my way doing what I knew was right. I simply would float from one thing to another, and then they all seemed to catch and to hold me until I was a hundred. And suddenly all that was behind me.”

Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected], and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.


‘SIGN MY NAME TO FREEDOM’

Book by Michael Gene Sullivan, music and lyrics by Betty Reid Soskin, presented by San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company

When:  March 29-April 13

Where: Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco

Tickets: $15-$65; www.sfbatco.org





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