Theater Review: SIGN MY NAME TO FREEDOM (San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company at Z Space)

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by Chuck Louden on April 3, 2024

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company (SFBATCO) is presenting a terrific production that tells the amazing true story of Bay Area icon Betty Reid Soskin, known to residents in the Bay Area as being the oldest ranger in National Park Service who retired two years ago at the age of 100 (she became a ranger at 85). Playwright Michael Gene Sullivan brings her story to life through her own music and writings in Sign My Name to Freedom, a musical that chronicles her life through masterful story and song.

Betty’s story begins with her Creole childhood, moving from the South to Oakland, Walnut Creek and ultimately Richmond, California. It takes place from the Jim Crow era to civil rights activism on the West Coast. As a ranger later in her life, she would become known for interpreting to tourists at the World War II Home Front National Historical Park the narrative about Rosie the Riveter — which she criticized as being a “white women’s story.” Her experiences as a Black woman, even in the progressive Bay Area, tells of a forgotten part of local history — the discrimination, racism and death threats to her family.

Music has always been a passion for Betty. She co-owned and operated Reid Records over in Berkeley which specialized in Soul music, giving Black people an alternative to all the white pop records being sold. Betty also composed many of her own songs which she would perform at anti-war rallies in the 1960s. Her music was a creative outlet for her to express her emotions during those times when Blacks were treated as second class citizens.

Four different actresses tell Betty’s multi-generational story, a successful way to highlight the many facets of Betty’s life, from her strengths to her vulnerabilities. Tiera Allen is Little Betty, Aidaa Peerzada is Married Betty, Lucca Troutman plays Revolutionary Betty, and Cathleen Riddley is 95-year-old Ranger Betty. Reciting dialogue and setting up the eras they’re playing, each member of the quartet has a powerful voice, backed up by Ahja Henry, Marc Cunaman Chapelle, Markailo Dyson, and Jeremy Brooks. Performing double duty as aerialists dexterously executing Joanna Haigood‘s twirling choreographer are Blair Williams, Nina Sowant and William Brewton Fowler Jr.

The fantastic band was unseen but definitely heard creating the mood and excitement. Daniel Savio conducted and played the keyboards, assisted by Jason Young (drums), Guinevere Q (bass) and Breakfast (sax and guitar). Tiersa Nureyev’s costumes effectively help depict the different times and eras of the story.

Under Elizabeth Carter‘s fluid direction, the minimalist set gives the performers plenty of room to move about the stage. Old and young alike from any background should see and learn this still-living legend’s amazing story. Her message about activism and standing up for one’s civil rights is relevant now more than ever.

photos by Alexa “LexMex” Treviño

Sign My Name to Freedom: The Unheard Songs of Betty Reid Soskin
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company (SFBATCO)
Z Space, 450 Florida St.
ends on April 13, 2024
for tickets ($15–$65) visit SFBATCO

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