When radium was first discovered by famed scientist Marie Curie, it was touted as a miracle cure. The glowing substance was incorporated in everyday items from medicines to beauty products, and it was used to treat a host of ailments. In the 1920s, three U.S. radium factories hired young women to paint clock dials with radium-based paint. Known to history as the Radium Girls, these young women were hired for their smaller hands that enabled them to paint the fine details on clock faces.
The radium dial factory workers were instructed by their employers to lick the tips of their paintbrushes to maintain a fine point. The Radium Girls literally glowed. Their clothing and hair held the shimmering, other-worldly luminescence of the radioactive paint they touched, and ingested, for hours a day. Jobs in the radium dial factories were highly sought-after, especially for working class women during World War I.
When the young women began to fall mysteriously ill, the U.S. Radium Corporation dismissed the employees’ claims that radium was to blame. The young workers, many of them in their teens and early twenties, then began to die gruesome deaths from radiation poisoning. The radium companies continued to mislead and misinform their employees, and even as they were dying, the Radium Girls fought back.
What we know now as common health and safety practices in the workplace happened because of battles won by these women from their deathbeds. Over 50 radium factory workers died from radiation poisoning, and these women paved the way for workplace safety standards, protections for workers, and corporate transparency. The Radium Girls are credited with the eventual establishment of OSHA, as well as leaving an indelible mark on the scientific study of radiation.
UCO’s Department of Theatre Arts is presenting Radium Girls by D.W. Gregory. This play depicts the real-life story of Radium Girl Grace Fryer and the fight the Radium Girls faced against the corrupt radium industry.
Radium Girls is presented entirely online; a decision made in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Production Director Alicia Tafoya says “Due to the pandemic, this show has undergone a really interesting transition. It was originally envisioned as a large-scale production with a three-level set, period costumes, and a cast of 30 people. In response to social distancing limitations, the production has been completely revised, and there are only 9 actors, most of whom play multiple roles. We are required to social distance the blocking (onstage movement), and all of the cast must remain masked throughout the production.
“Creating live theatre in a new way has been such a challenge and a joy during these uncertain times. I am so glad we will get to share that with others through the streaming performance.”
When discussing the timeliness of this play, Tafoya remarks, “When we began planning this production, there was no way for us to have known just how timely this play would be. Radium Girls explores who is to blame for a series of illnesses and deaths. This invisible toxin is spread through the air and the chemicals that employees encounter while working. Some consider it a public health crisis, and others consider it fake news.”
Radium Girls stars Jillian Wheeler as Grace Fryer. The cast of nine also includes Justine Rogers as Kathryn Schaub, Society Woman, and Harriet Roeder, Sydney Cricklin as Irene, Katherine, and Board member 2, Annie Dunlap as Mrs. Macneil, Anna Fryer, Clerk, Elderly Widow, and Sob Sister, and Jaelin Gonzaque as Arthur Roeder. Nathan Rogers is Markley, Sochocky, Venecine Saleman, and Dr. Martland, Nathaniel Dennis is Lee, Dr. Drinker, Bailey, Flynn, and Lovesick Cowboy. Kailan Weidner is Tom, Reporter, Berry, and Dr. Knef. Candice Wood Bunce is Mrs. Roeder, Dr. Marie Curie, and Board Member 3. Swings are Ian Wehrenberg, Tyler Abbott, and Bellah Noelle.
The performers will remain socially distanced and masked for all performances.
Radium Girls streams October 22nd – 24th at 7:30 PM CST and October 25th at 2 PM CST via UCO’s streaming site: streaming.uco.edu.