World premiere of play about Betty Reid Soskin’s amazing life

San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company’s “Sign My Name to Freedom” features, from left, Cathleen Riddley as Betty Reid Soskin, Aidaa Peerzada as Married Betty, Lucca Troutman as Revolutionary Betty and Tierra Allen as Little Betty. (Courtesy Alexa “LexMex” Treviño)

There must be few writing endeavors more daunting than attempting to capture the entire lifespan of a single person, from toddlerhood to old age, in one theatrical performance—especially when that person seems to have lived multiple lifetimes and is now 102.

Such is the challenge undertaken by local playwright-actor Michael Gene Sullivan (San Francisco Mime Troupe’s resident playwright), tasked with turning the life story of one incredible woman—East Bay resident Betty Reid Soskin, best known in recent years as a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond—into a musical.

“Sign My Name to Freedom,” the resulting two-and-a-half-hour world premiere, commissioned by San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company (SFBATCO) from a concept by Jamie Zimmer and developed over the course of four years, is nothing less than a labor of love on the part of all the creators. And if it inevitably suffers from the effort to encapsulate Soskin’s life, it also has a good share of scenes, and songs (10 of them), that pop.

Soskin, from a Creole family in New Orleans that resettled in Oakland, was, decades ago, a singer and songwriter. She has also been a mother; a business owner (a record shop for the Black community); an activist who’d have liked to participate in the civil rights movement in the South but, with kids and a husband, stayed home and joined the antiwar protests of the 1960s; a divorcee who later remarried, to a white man; to her own surprise, a park ranger; and now the subject of a play that incorporates her own long-dormant music and lyrics (with some additional music by Daniel Savio, who’s also the music director and conducts the small band). 

Soskin’s life has been full of creativity, fervor and tragedy.  

To trace the changes she’s gone through, Sullivan created four Bettys, all of whom interact at various times, forming a sort of historical timeline. There is little girl Betty (Tierra Allen), who functions as a vessel for the older Bettys to impart facts without being too didactic (although sometimes they are) and two older Bettys: Married Betty (Aidaa Peerzada, an especially powerful and soulful singer) and the more strident Revolutionary Betty (Lucca Troutman). Finally, there is almost-present-day Betty (Cathleen Riddley).  

Jasmine Milan Williams appears as Betty’s simpatico park ranger friend.  

The Bettys argue, instruct and comfort one another, the older ones revealing the future to the younger ones. It’s a conceit that works well at times, but at other times feels too artificial, partly due to an uneven cast that includes some hammy overacting under Elizabeth Carter’s otherwise sensitive direction. 

L-R: Jeremy Brooks, Ahja Henry, Veronica Blair, Aidaa Peerzada, Marc Cunanan Chappelle, Tierra Allen, William Brewton Fowler. Jr., Nina Sawant and Cathleen Riddley appear in “Sign My Name to Freedom.” (Courtesy Alexa “LexMex” Treviño)

Lots—too much, as is so often in the case with biographical productions—is crammed into this two-act musical, yet much is left out, especially the details about such personal things as Soskin’s two unfortunate marriages, or nuances of her relationships with her children. Too much time is spent on her childhood; it’s her adulthood that’s so fascinating. 

Soskin’s songs blend effortlessly into the action. They’re personal, achingly expressive, dynamic (as in the anthem “Sign My Name to Freedom”), and altogether wonderful. “Little Boy Black,” sung by all four Bettys in harmony, is downright chilling.  

Especially enchanting is the seven-person ensemble of dancers, aerialists and acrobats that appears (not often enough), intermingling with the Bettys. Choreographed by Laura Elaine Ellis, with aerial choreography by Joanna Haigood, the troupe conjures a magical, at times dreamy ambiance that balances out the more prosaic storytelling and, together with the music and lyrics, turns Soskin’s life story into true art. 

San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company’s “Sign My Name to Freedom” continues through April 13 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$65 at

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