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PerformanceStage ReviewRanger, activist, housewife, centenarian: 'Sign My Name to Freedom'...

Ranger, activist, housewife, centenarian: ‘Sign My Name to Freedom’ traces an extraordinary life

Betty Reid Soskin's continuing journey is set to music—and portrayed by four actors—at Z Space.

At the risk of asking an impossible question: what makes “a full life”? Is it a life of wanderlust or making the best to improve your immediate surroundings? Is it better to look back on a multitude of affairs instead of finding a definitive love of your life? Is it enough to make a difference in many peoples’ lives if your name is forgotten? Obviously, these are rhetorical questions—if there were only one path to “a full life”, that would be the only life anyone tried to live.

Betty Reid Soskin’s life has been full. The diminutive park ranger has more than a century behind her, which is more than most people can even dream of. But the most fascinating element of all that time—as chronicled in SF BATCO’s new musical Sign My Name to Freedom (world premiere through April 13 at Z Space)—is that none of those years seemed uneventful. From surviving a massive flood as a child, to opening Bay Area record stores, to being honored by the United States’ first Black president, even the mundane aspects of her life overshadow those of the average person.

In fact, Soskin has lived so many lives that the musical has her represented by four different people. We first meet her (as played by Cathleen Ridley) in 2016, when she fights off a burglar at her Richmond home. The following morning, she tries to brush off the danger as she speaks with fellow park ranger Renee (Jasmine Milan Williams), but that façade begins to fail once she notices that a commemorative presidential coin—given to her by Obama—was taken. This leads to one of those whole-life flashbacks that bios love to use.

Modern Betty (just called “Betty”) starts half-ignoring Renee to chat with precocious “Little” Betty (Tierra Allen), as the latter both comments about her 21st Century life and just now experiences all the events and abandonments that will, unfortunately, define her young life. (Most notably, her parents dumping her into a Kafkaesque facility in an attempt to treat a case of tuberculosis, which she doesn’t have.)

Photo by Alexa “LexMex” Treviño

As she grows older and develops amorous feelings, the two aforementioned versions of Betty get to meet Married Betty (Aidaa Peerzada), full-time mother and wife defined by her conservative style of dress and an activist spirit with which she doesn’t seem all that comfortable. Not to worry: Revolutionary Betty (Lucca Troutman) is here to sing songs and take on The Man alongside her fellow activists!

Dramatized biographies are always tricky because it’s a delicate balance over what to leave in and what to keep out. Soskin’s name may not be as recognizable as the subjects of some recent stage bios, but I imagine that’s part of why conceptualizer Jamie Zimmer thought to make the show in the first place. The book was written by Michael Gene Sullivan with music by Daniel Savio, both veterans of SF Mime Troupe. Savio’s tunes have a delightful showtune feel to them, with me writing in my notes how much an early song by Little Betty sounds like something straight out of Annie.

Sullivan’s script is at its best when it truly lingers in Soskin’s reactions to the events happening to her at each age. Like other recent bios, it tries shove a bit too much into a single narrative, but at least it doesn’t get as bogged down as those others did. Sign… attempts a smooth flow from one point in time to the next, allowing one to feel Soskin’s anger at being in the midst of casual racism because she passes for white; at her pain of watching her marriages fall apart; and her drive to reinvent herself as a Civil Rights-era activist. The latter allows Sullivan to indulge himself, as he naturally agrees to Soskin’s leftist politics, but that agreement occasionally turns into full-fledged proselytizing.

Through it all, director Elizabeth Carter lets her cast revel in their roles. Someone pedantic kvetched about an apparent loss of verisimilitude at having the fair-skinned Soskin portrayed by Black women of various shades, but the core quartet each bring something unique to their shared role—so much so that it’s conceivable (and, likely, less taxing on the narrative) for any of the sections to be their own full-length. Supported by an ensemble of dancers and aerialists, our ladies are swept up, sometimes literally, in the life of a woman who takes both active and passive roles in the world around her.

Photo by Alexa “LexMex” Treviño

The one thing truly missing from the packed chronology is an ample amount of time on Soskin’s role as a tell-it-like-it-is park ranger. She’s shown pointing out landmarks and highlighting the uncomfortable racial histories behind them. This could have made for a great framing device, not unlike George Wolfe’s The Colored Museum. It would have put a nice emphasis on the play’s theme of how this tiny spitfire made it from one end of a century to another.

Aside from myself, there were very few opening night attendees in masks. Fortunately, Z Space’s wide-open design of and strong HVAC system make it one of the few old SF buildings where my Aranet4’s CO² readings tend to peak around 940ppm over the course of the two-act show. That was something of a relief, considering I sat both in front of and behind chronic coughers. (What’s more, the woman in front of me kept taking photos, despite the curtain speech saying not to. That’s bad enough from young patrons, but completely inexcusable from middle-aged ones, as this woman was.) The production is scheduled to have one mask-required show on April 10.

If the idea of a “full life” is simply one of longevity, Betty Soskin has succeeded. If, on the other hand, it’s an idea of what one specifically does with their days given, Soskin’s life still qualifies. She’s done so much that any attempt to write her life story would inevitably be stuffed to the gills. Fortunately, the creators and collaborators behind Sign My Name to Freedom remember to keep the story entertaining, even as they seem overwhelmed by the need to keep it informative. Stuffed as it may be, it’s a musical full of laughs and tears. And the wish that any one of us could live so long and do so much.

SIGN MY NAME TO FREEDOM’s world premiere runs through April 13 at Z Space, SF. Tickets and further info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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