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‘Radium Girls’ Shine

The Alameda High School (AHS) actors telling the story of the “Radium Girls” were children when Mae Keane died in 2014 at the age of 107. Keane was an actual Radium Girl, hired to paint watch dials so they would glow in the dark—a novelty of that time. She outlived most of her fellow workers, all young women, many of whom suffered from exposure to radium, which led to cancer.

AHS brings this story to life

Alameda Post - a group photo of the cast and crew for Radium Girls. They are all posing together onstage
The cast and crew. Photo Anneka Fagundes.

The director, cast, and crew of AHS’s fall play, which ran November 10 through 19 at the Frederick L. Chacon Little Theater, are to be lauded for the performance, especially given the poignancy of the theme: workers kept ignorant of the dangers of their work in order for a company to maximize profits. The final scene is both painful and powerful when a character, reflecting on the tragedy of the radium calamity, innocently lights up a cigarette.

None of the cast or crew, nor the director, nor this reviewer, learned about the real-life Radium Girls in our high school history classes. Nor is it likely that many of us made the connection between those young women and Alameda’s proposed theater and performance venue, RADIUM, at Alameda Point, where the U.S. Navy once used that same radium-based paint on tiny instrument dials, switches, and markers in planes.

The play by D.W. Gregory was published in 2000, a book by Kate Moore came out in 2016, and a film followed in 2018. And now, in 2022, young actors set aside their cell phones and social media to beautifully teach us what happened to their ancestors a century ago.

‘Radium Girls’ takes to the stage

Alameda Post - three actors onstage sit at a table
Sydney Mersch, Iesett Hansen, Dani Kha (Left to right). Photo Anneka Fagundes.

The center of the story is Grace Fryer, a young woman eager to marry and begin her life as an adult. She gets a job at the factory and is instructed to use her lips to lick the tip of her brush to keep it very narrow, in order to make the fine bright lines. Perhaps it is the intimacy of the action that makes the results so horrifying—tooth loss, bone cancer, disfigurement. We watch as Grace, wonderfully played by Sydney Mersch, does her job and then essentially decays in front of us, stumbling from weak bones, bearing the dark smudge of skin necrosis, and eventually dying. Drettxeh Marimon plays Grace’s caring mother and Will Norton plays Grace’s loving fiancé; both were terrific.

The villain in the story is Arthur Roeder, portrayed strongly by Aidan Boscovich. Roeder runs the factory and, in an all-too-familiar way, talks more of his responsibility to stockholders than to his employees. Juno Norton plays a lawyer for the company with a chilled indifference to the girls who are suffering and dying. Challenging the company with strong performances are Carmen Baskette and Julian Chea, the former an advocate for the victims, the latter a lawyer seeking justice.

Preserving a cautionary tale

Alameda Post - three actors are on stage. One makes a bed. The second is dressed in a suit handing an envelope to the third actor.
Drettxeh Marimon, Juno Norton, Sydney Mersch (Left to right). Photo Anneka Fagundes.

“Radium Girls” was the debut of new AHS drama director, Anneka Fagundes. Her leadership in helping the actors understand the backstory, in coordinating the many set changes with her deft crew, and in shaping the play were most impressive and foreshadow great things for the AHS Drama Department.

The real-life Radium Girls sued the watch companies and won. Thanks to them, the Navy workers here in Alameda followed safety procedures to prevent ingestion of radium. But as Alameda Point Environmental Report notes, it has taken well over a half-century to clean up the radium-contaminated storm drains.

“Radium Girls” is a play that should be celebrated in the greater context of the better telling of American history and used as a catalyst for studying the labor movement and the development of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). But it also should serve as a window into understanding how workers are misused now, in the United States and in those countries abroad where much of the clothing we wear each day is made. They, like the young girls in the 1920s, sacrifice themselves for profit so we, the consumer, can outwardly glow.

Gene Kahane is the founder of the Foodbank Players, a life-long teacher, and former Poet Laureate for the City of Alameda. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Gene-Kahane.

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Alameda Post Inc. applied to the IRS for 501 (c)(3) non-profit status earlier this year. Members will be notified when the IRS sends a positive determination letter, making their membership or donation tax-deductible. Monthly members will receive their benefits after three months of membership. Memberships including tickets to history walking tours will be offered in limited quantities.