music in the park san jose

.Betty Reid Soskin, the Musical

'Sign My Name To Freedom: The Unheard Songs of Betty Reid Soskin' hits the stage of Z Space

music in the park san jose

Betty Reid Soskin, 102, has never subscribed to the narrative that women have shelf lives. She’s spent her whole life defying that while constantly reinventing herself. As the owner of Reid Records, one of California’s first Black-owned record stores, Reid Soskin eventually made her way to her job at the Rosie the Riveter National Shipyard Museum at the age of 85. She retired at 100, making her the oldest park ranger in the U.S. and likely in the world.

A chapter of Reid Soskin’s life that is far less known is the one that became her reprieve as she suffered the emotional aftermath of a divorce in the context of a society impacted by segregation and racism while trying to raise her children—singing.

“I packed ‘secret Betty’ up in boxes in reel-to-reel tapes. No one in my life knew that I had been a singer or that I had written music,” Reid Soskin says in the trailer of Brian Gibel’s film, tentatively titled Sign My Name to Freedom: The Lost Music of Betty Reid Soskin.

“We were the first family of color in Walnut Creek,” Reid Soskin says. “I was documenting all of the events that we were experiencing as a country and that I was experiencing in isolation, in songs. Maybe releasing the music to the public is a way of making myself whole. And maybe I need to do that before I die.”

Reid Soskin’s story is one of mothering, enduring segregation and racial tension, divorce, new beginnings, reinvention and trailblazing.

“I knew my slave ancestor, my great grandmother, until she died at the age of 102, when I was 27 years old,” Reid Soskin says. “All of American history, from the Dred Scott Decision to Black Lives Matter, is encapsulated in the voices of my great grandmother, my mother and myself because we lived all of that history from 1846 to the present time.”

Now, as she is a little less verbose than she once was, Reid Soskin’s counting on the two generations behind her to keep her legacy alive.

Reid Soskin’s 28-year-old granddaughter, Alyana Reid, says she’s grown closer to Reid Soskin since she became the associate producer of Brian Gibel’s film.

“There’s a 75-year age gap between my grandma and me,” Alyana says. “I saw her at family gatherings, recitals and special occasions, but once I got involved in the film project I came to know her and appreciate her in a different way. Her music encapsulated her firsthand experience in the civil rights movement and also what she was witnessing just as a person in that time.”

Alyana says that the song, “Your Hand in Mine,” is a cornerstone of the film and an example of an act of resistance. “My grandma describes it as a hand-holding song to take the place of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ which was taken from the civil rights movement and misused by Lyndon B. Johnson.”

Di’ara Reid, Reid Soskin’s daughter, remembers accompanying her mother to various events and Unitarian Church functions during childhood. But it wasn’t until adulthood that she truly appreciated the significance of her mother’s music.

“When I transitioned from construction to the record store, I used to bump heads with my mom sometimes,” Di’ara says. Then, as Reid Soskin got into her work as a part of the National Park Service, Di’ara became preoccupied with running the record store. However, in 2019, when Reid Soskin suffered a stroke just a year after Di’ara had transitioned into her identity as her true self, a transgender woman, things changed.

“I became her full-time caretaker,” Di’ara says. “I was still a newbie in my womanhood and still feeling pretty vulnerable.” It took the two some time to get used to each other, but now the pair are like two peas in a pod.

Di’ara is crossing her fingers that the film about her mother can materialize in her mother’s lifetime. Di’ara dotes on her mother’s music, which she describes as timeless and as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. When Di’ara was around 12, Reid Soskin turned down an opportunity to pursue music professionally because she felt it was important to be with her children.

Di’ara now has gratitude to her mother for making that choice. “I think it was a decision she made for the family, and what was best for us and now what was best for her,” she says.

“I don’t have any regrets,” Reid Soskin says. “I just don’t.”

Betty Reid Soskin, Alyana and Di’ara Reid all hope enough funds can be raised to bring the film to full fruition in the span of her lifetime. “It’s important for people to receive their roses and their recognition,” Alyana says. People can learn more or contribute by visiting signmynametofreedom.com

In the meantime, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company is taking Betty Reid Soskin’s story to the stage at Z Space in San Francisco from March 28 to April 13. The play called, Sign My Name To Freedom: The Unheard Songs of Betty Reid Soskin, written by Michael Gene Sullivan, conceptualized by Jamie Zimmer and directed by Elizabeth Carter, promises to inspire, enlighten and entertain.

“Betty says in her book, early on, that she never wanted to do things that were against her values,” Carter says. “She talks about not saying certain words in the Pledge of Allegiance because they weren’t true for her until she could say them at President Obama’s inauguration. She models how to show up and stand up for what you believe in and what you know to be true.”

If all goes well, Carter says, Reid Soskin will be at the opening show. When asked to give an elevator pitch for why people should see the play, Carter makes the case for relatability.

“Imagine a time when something shakes you to your core and allows you to go back and revisit all of your former selves and reparent yourself, to bring your disparate selves together to unify,” Carter says. “I think that this play is uplifting and inspirational. But it’s also very personal. And I think we can all see ourselves within it.”

Carter says the play not only has versions of Reid Soskin’s music, but it also has other magical elements and even includes aerial dimensions. For more information about the play or to buy tickets, visit www.zspace.org/signmyname.

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