The Williams Baptist University theatre department will close the 2020-21 season with These Shining Lives, a play written by Melanie Marnich, based on the true story of four women who worked for the Radium Dial Company, a watch factory based in Ottawa, Ill. The play dramatizes the danger the women faced in this workplace and highlights the wider lack of concern companies had for protecting the health of their employees.
“This is my second time to direct this show and it hit me just as hard the second time. ” Melinda Williams, assistant professor of speech, drama, and journalism at WBU said. “There is something about bringing a story to life based on real people and real events. Their lives touch yours, their story becomes a part of yours.”
Narrated by one of the workers, Catherine Donohue, the play shows women getting a chance for a well-paying job in the 1920s and early 1930s, which was uncharacteristic for the time in the United States. The job, which seems easy enough to the four main characters, is painting the hour markings onto different-sized watch dials using a radium compound that glows in the dark. The workers were encouraged to put the end of the paintbrushes into their mouths in order to get a fine tip.
“There are moments in the play where it just makes you angry,” Williams said. “Radium Dial told the women that the radium compound wouldn’t hurt them. But, at that time, many believe radium had health benefits and as stated in the play, was actually seen as a miracle cure for a lot of ailments.”
Besides the Ottawa location, women worked at radium plants in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. Dial painters from all those plants sought retribution for their illnesses caused by radium poisoning, but the Illinois women were the only ones to receive compensation.
“In the closing of the play, Catherine Donohue has the line that she won her case six times and the Radium Dial Company appealed six times, all the way to the United States Supreme Court,” Williams said. “The closing of the play also makes the statement that the case changed Illinois state law so that companies could finally be held responsible for the safety of their workers.”
Appearing in the production are MeKency Shepherd of Little Rock as Catherine Donohue; Joe Hutchison of Evening Shade as Donohue’s husband Tom; Zoey Morgan of Malvern, Scarlett James of Paragould, and Kaylen Doss of Jonesboro as three of the dial painters; and Aejarah Hodges of Trumann and Grant Goad of Jonesboro in multiple roles.
“The play is not just about women’s rights, but the rights of every worker to be safe in their jobs,” Williams added. “It’s about standing up for what’s right, just and fair.”
The production will take place on Thursday and Friday, April 15-16, in Startup Chapel. Curtain time will be 7:30 p.m. each night with admission $3 for students and senior citizens and $5 general admission.