Pekin Community High School students next month are presenting “Radium Girls,” a play about a factory where painting watches was literally killing a group of women.
The performances will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, Friday, Nov. 2, and 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3, in F.M. Peterson Theater at Pekin Community High School. It is expected to run approximately two hours with an intermission.
This is Jeanette Odle’s sixth year at PCHS as the head drama coach, an English teacher and instructional coach. Odle and co-director Teri Bruning held auditions, and there are 74 students involved in “Radium Girls,” including those who are behind-the-scenes.
“Radium Girls” takes place at the cusp of World War I. Those in the military needed to know the time in war zones so they knew when it was time to launch an attack, especially in the dark. Two decades earlier, Marie Curie discovered radium, a substance that glowed in the dark but had extreme health dangers. Only men did the work to turn radium into paint, and they wore lead vests for protection. Young women were hired to hand-paint numbers using the radium paint because they had small hands and could paint fine lines. The play focuses on three groups of people as the women painters fall fatally ill from using the paint.
There were different methods of painting the numbers onto the watch faces.
“One common method was the lick, dip and paint method,” said Odle. “These young women would take the paintbrush and lick the end, dip it into the radium paint, paint the number and then lick the brush again to repeat the process. The requirement for a shift was to complete about 250 watches. Think about how many times these young women licked that radium paint.”
One of the groups the play focuses on is young ladies who worked in the factory in New Jersey. Amelia “Mollie” Maggia was the first of these girls to fall ill. In less than one year, after working in the watch factory, her jaw decayed so much that the doctor could remove it without anesthesia. She had complained about the pain early on and was given aspirin.
Odle said that once the word got out that Maggia was ill, the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, N.J., defamed her character, citing that syphilis, not radium, was the cause for her poor health. The second group is the board members and president of the U.S. Radium Corporation and their realization of what was happening along with their denial and tampering with evidence in lawsuits. The third group is the general public and their reaction to the news. Their health was very much impacted, too. The women who worked in the factory were not given any protective clothing, which meant the radium dust that was on their aprons, uniforms and shoes was tracked outside the factory. At the time there was also a drink called “Radithor” sold to the public as a health tonic that contained radium. It was advertised as a popular drink because it glowed.
“While the subject matter is dark it is very important to have a conversation about what it means to be in a workplace and not have a choice about aspects of your job,” Odle said. “The general feeling about working in this factory was that it was a prestigious job because it paid well. Workers felt they couldn’t say ‘no’ without losing their job. The trial that followed established a precedent for major ailments or deaths in the workplace. Work was killing them. The most important aspect to me was that this issue was local. Around the same time a sister plant set up shop in Ottawa, Illinois, and thousands of women were doing the same work there that was going on in New Jersey.”
Odle’s students rose to the challenge of tackling this subject and independently researched this issue further.
“I’m incredibly proud of what they’ve brought to their characters,” Odle said.
They also have some original composition of music in the performance, which Odle called “somewhat unique.”
Tickets are $3 for PCHS students and $5 for non-students. Tickets may be purchased between 7:45 a.m. and 3 p.m. at the Branch Finance Office inside PCHS the week of the play. The box office will also be open a half-hour prior to the start of each show for people to buy tickets.