Bringing the 1920s to 2019: “Radium Girls: In Concert” Glows with Intersectional Messages

Last Friday and Saturday at 7:00 p.m. in Olde Club, a packed, standing audience murmured amongst themselves as they waited for a show to begin. A band featuring two guitarists (Bailey Jones ’22 and Spencer Tate ’22), a drummer (Maximillian Barry ’19), and the bassist, writer, and director of the show (Fouad Dakwar ’22) entered the stage and began to warm up. After a couple of minutes, the house lights of Olde Club faded to black, and the band played a flourish of gentle rock music as the four principle actors entered the stage, technicolor lights glowing onto their figures. The 1920s came alive in 2019 fashion, and we entered the world of the Radium Girls.

In “Radium Girls: In Concert,” Dakwar expertly handled the frankly sickening and unequivocally horrifying subject of the Radium Girls. The Radium Girls were women who, during World War I, painted watch dials with the newly-discovered element radium. During this time, more female workers than ever entered the workforce due to the lack of male workers. While the U.S. Radium Dial Corporation gave men heavy protective equipment, they failed to give women any protection, instead telling them to routinely lick the radium-coated paint brushes for a finer point. In addition to being exposed to toxic chemicals from licking the radium-covered brushes, many female workers, unaware of the risk, painted their skin and faces with the deadly chemical. After radium poisoning took the lives of countless women (then thought to have died due to syphilis), five brave women filed a now-famous lawsuit against the corporation that had knowingly destroyed their bodies and lives. “Radium Girls: In Concert” focuses on the lives of two out of these five women (Katherine Schnaub, played by Samantha Ortiz-Clark ’22, and Grace Fryer, played by Eva Low ’22), as well as those of two other women who succumbed to radium poisoning (Mollie Maggia, played by Katie Phillips ’2021, and Ella Eckert, played by Youogo Kamgaing ’22).

In the end, Katherine (Ortiz-Clark), the last Radium Girl of the four, begrudgingly took a plea deal from the U.S. Radium Corporation that promised financial help to her family as long as workers stopped protesting to expose their true working conditions. After signing the plea deal, Ortiz-Clark angrily unplugged the microphones from the speakers, and stormed off the stage. The ending refrain of the musical “What’s it all for? Does it never add up to something more?” slowly faded out as the Radium Girls exited the stage and the once-brilliant technicolor lights faded to black. The evident anticlimax of the concert left the audience whispering, “Was that it?” and wondering if the show would end with another flourish of rock music. Soon thereafter, however, the lights of Olde Club turned back on, accompanied by a voice screaming at the audience, “You can mingle now!”

“Radium Girls: In Concert” was over, and its harsh conclusion recalled us to the real-life demise of the real-life Radium Girls. There were no winners in their story. They had raised awareness for workers’ rights and mistreatment of women in an era during which the two now-prominent social issues were considered irrelevant, but at what cost? Their bodies had fallen apart and their jaws were beset with incurable necrosis — an illness now known as “radium jaw.” The show reminds us that despite our expectations, we are not guaranteed happy endings. Often, as in the case of the Radium Girls, it is irresponsible to expect anything but endings that make us consider the suffering intrinsic to the human condition.

“Radium Girls: In Concert” positively glows with its deeply intersectional commentary on subjects such as abuse, systemic misogyny, and workers’ rights.

In an email interview, Dakwar highlighted the significance of intersectionality to the show.

“Not only did I want to share this story, but I also wanted to highlight its significance today,” he said. “The significance of both feminism as well as workers’ rights within the dial painters’ case is a perfect example of what we now often call ‘intersectionality.’ Not to mention the prominence of sexism and workers’ exploitation (and their intersections) in American society continues today, often in different forms. This story is today.”

Dakwar also acknowledged his experience as writing an all-female show as someone who doesn’t identify as female or female-aligned.

“I recognize that this story is not entirely mine to tell. I am neither a woman nor a factory worker and I entered the process of both writing and directing the show with this at the front of my mind … Furthermore, the intersectional nature of the story, the militarization of the media within it, the imbalance of power between the two parties involved in the trial, and the unending suffering of these women reminded me of my personal struggles as a Palestinian … I hope that people can have the amount of empathy for my struggles that I have for those of the [R]adium [G]irls.”

Aside from the show’s feminist and pro-workers’-rights messages, its more tangible aspects also actively engaged the audience. At different times, the audience teared up, swayed to the music, and shouted alongside the protesters in the show. The performers’ vocal harmonies, many of which they arranged themselves, maintained the idea of unity and friendship among the workers, and the transitions between energized rock and melancholy ballads kept the audience wide awake.

On wearing the hats of director, writer, music director, and bassist, Dakwar acknowledged the necessity of teamwork.

“I’m not the sole writer of this show, nor the sole director, nor the sole music director,” he said. “I’m just the asshole who took credit for it all.”

The only aspect of “Radium Girls: In Concert” that left something to be desired was the length of the show. The brief 35-minute running time left several plot points to be fully explained and fleshed-out, and the rapid transitions between scenes often left audience members confused as to what was really going on. The show would have benefitted from gentler shifts of pace that took careful time to guide the audience through its labyrinth of storylines, rather than forcing the audience to comply with its brevity. Given the time constraints and the month-long timeline of the project, however, the show managed to maintain a fairly polished, if not somewhat rough, look to it.

As for the show’s future, according to Dakwar, the performers are considering releasing an album version of the show. This could take either the form of audio from a live performance or a full studio recording. Dakwar also plans to submit this piece and its live recording to theater festivals in hopes of future development.

Anatole Shukla

Anatole Shukla '22 is an Editor Emeritus of The Phoenix. He is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and studied economics, linguistics, and Russian language while at Swarthmore.

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