For some of us, work sucks. You’re just a cog in a well-oiled contraption, clocking in and out, collecting a sad little paycheck every couple of weeks. Or maybe you’re paid well for hazardous or high-risk work, and that’s cool until the day you’re injured or you get sick. But hey, Workers Comp, right? Nowadays, yes. A hundred years ago, not so much.
Duke City Repertory Theatre draws the curtain on its fourth season with These Shining Lives, the story of a group of women employed to apply radioactive paint on watch dials in 1920s Chicago. Penned by multi-award-winning playwright Melanie Marlich, the show is based on the “Radium Girls” case against the U.S. Radium Corporation. The industrial behemoth had substantial documentation of the dangers of radium poisoning, yet the women workers regularly came into direct, unprotected contact with the radioactive element. The ensuing David v. Goliath court case resulted in a landmark ruling establishing legal precedents for labor safety regulations.
The show’s director, Dr. John Hardy, says Marlich keeps the focus on the women, from their excitement at finding meaningful employment and building camaraderie to the devastation of their illnesses and the tenacity to hold their employer accountable. “You take it for granted now, the idea of a woman working—much less a married woman with children,” Hardy says. At a time when most women had poorly paid clerical and domestic service jobs, “it was such a bold thing to even dream about. [Then] they had this horrific thing happen to them. It was a long and difficult battle they waged and won.”
Hardy says DCRT was drawn to the play by its obvious relevance to New Mexico nuclear and radioactive history, but the show is also a strong choice for a repertory theater with a high concentration of capable actresses. “All the women I know are badasses, including the women who work at DCRT,” Hardy explains. “The kind of women I see in my life are the kind of women in this play.” At a time when women’s participation in science and technology is stagnating, the determination of these characters in that realm provides a sorely needed representation of women.
Despite the serious nature of the story, Hardy says humor runs throughout the play. But ultimately, These Shining Lives is the story of four women who fought against an enormous corporation while suffering the devastating symptoms of radium poisoning. In winning their fight, they raised a nation’s consciousness about the value of workplace safety. “The things that we enjoy as Americans,” Hardy says, “like women in the workplace, workers’ rights, a fair and just interpretation of workplace risks, were earned by people like these women.”
The play opens Thursday, May 15, at the Cell Theatre (700 First Street NW) Downtown, and the 11-day run includes a special performance on May 23 at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (601 Eubank SE).