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‘Radium Girls’ revisits historic court case that led to safer labor practices

‘Radium Girls’ revisits historic court case that led to safer labor practices
The 1999 drama "Radium Girls" is receiving a new staging at Orange Coast College, and (L-R) Miranda Lennert, Fallon James, Ayla Valentine play a few of the thousands of real-life women factory workers who were exposed to radioactivity in the 1910s and ’20s. (Photo by David Scaglione)

Sometimes the glow of history reveals dark corners previously unknown.

That’s certainly the case with the countless young women who suffered radiation poisoning after painting the dials of watches with radium in factories in the 1910s and ’20s.

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D.W. Gregory’s 1999 play “Radium Girls,” now in a new production at Orange Coast College, tells the story of five women behind the 1928 court case against the United States Radium Corp. for labor abuses.

Naomi Buckley, director of OCC’s new production, calls the story “a compelling moment in history where female workers were able to sue and hold accountable a large corporation for work-related injuries that they had suffered.”

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During the early 20th century, an estimated 4,000 workers were hired by corporations in the U.S. and Canada to work with the radioactive chemical.

Women employees at factories in Connecticut, New Jersey and Illinois had been instructed by their employers to use their mouths to create a pointed tip to their camel-hair brushes. Some thought it was cool and chic to paint their fingernails and even their faces and teeth with the glowing substance, which they were told was harmless.

The misinformation led them to ingest deadly amounts of radium. Many became sick, and the total number of deaths caused by radiation exposure is unknown.

The play documents the plight of Grace Fryer, a worker at USRC’s plant in Orange, N.J., starting with her two-year search for a lawyer willing to take on the corporate giant.

Fryer eventually got four of her co-workers — Edna Hussman, Katherine Schaub, and sisters Quinta McDonald and Albina Larice — to join the lawsuit. When they first appeared in court in January 1928, two were bedridden, and all five were so ill they couldn’t raise their arms to be sworn in.

The five plaintiffs were dubbed the “Radium Girls,” a term that eventually came to be used to describe anyone who did the same kind of work and became exposed to the radium in the paint.

Arthur Roeder (Zion Aguilar, center), manager of U.S.R.C.’s New Jersey plant, and his vice-president, Charlie Lee (Saul Alcaraz), consult with lawyer Edward Markley (Maxwell Remington, left) to devise the best legal strategy following the death of one of his workers.
Arthur Roeder (Zion Aguilar, center), manager of U.S.R.C.’s New Jersey plant, and his vice-president, Charlie Lee (Saul Alcaraz), consult with lawyer Edward Markley (Maxwell Remington, left) to devise the best legal strategy following the death of one of his workers. (Photo by David Scaglione)

Opposing them was their former employer, an idealist who couldn’t bring himself to believe that the same chemical element that shrinks tumors could cause the rash of horrifying illnesses suffered by his workers.

The court case was among the first of its kind to receive widespread media attention. As it proceeded, Fryer found herself locked not just in a legal battle but also in conflict with her friends and relatives, who feared her campaign for justice would backfire.

Gregory’s play premiered at Playwrights’ Theatre of New Jersey and has since been produced more than 800 times in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and Germany. An ensemble of 10 actors enact some 38 roles, including the five Radium Girls and their friends, co-workers, relatives and lovers and the various attorneys, scientists, consumer advocates and interested bystanders in their orbit.

The play follows the litigation and media sensation surrounding the case.

“[It] paved the way for many more class action lawsuits that would allow for greater workplace accountability and worker safety,” said Buckley. “[And the play raises] themes of class inequality, gender equality in the workplace and big ethical issues.”

The production is part of OCC’s Social Justice Series, launched in 2016 in an effort to raise public awareness and to educate and engage audiences on issues related to societal injustice and human rights. Past shows in the series have delved into topics like immigration rights and social equity.

Buckley said she hopes what audiences take away from “Radium Girls” is “the courage that it took for these girls to come forward and persist in spite of being severely ill and disabled.

“Their story is one of heroism — the real bravery that so many men and women show that then paves the way for others.”

Eric Marchese is a contributor to Times Community News.

IF YOU GO

What: “Radium Girls”

Where: Drama Lab Theater, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa

When: March 15 through 24. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; March 24, 2:30 p.m.

Cost: $10 advance, $15 at the door

Information: (714) 432-5880, occtickets.com

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