SEAN GOLIGHTLY Sun Journalist
In the Flagstaff High School theater, the stage is set and the lights are on for the next production of “Radium Girls,” which opens Thursday at 7 pm.
Literally the lights are green.
“The color scheme had to reflect the actual glowing radium. Lots of green, lots of blue, colors to make it all look radioactive, ”said Shayne Smith, director of bands and performing arts at Flagstaff High School.
On stage, these irradiated lights contaminate a set that represents work benches with green aprons, brushes and bottles of shiny green acrylic paint – “radium” itself.
“When the lights go out, the whole thing is dark except for the radium,” Smith said.
This set is intended to represent the workplace of Grace Fryer, a historic American woman who was employed by American Radium in the 1920s. Fryer was 15 when she started working for the Chemical Company, and her duties consisted primarily of applying radioactive radium paint to glow-in-the-dark watch faces. At the time, the company assured Fryer and his colleagues, who were largely young women, that the paint was harmless.
“The girls were actually tasked by the company to point the brushes with their mouths to make sure they had an accurate paint,” Smith said. “So the girls literally ingested radium-based paint. “
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Over the years, Fryer has watched in horror as his colleagues fell ill and died. Soon she suspected radiation poisoning.
“She started to see the effects of radium and quit and started her legal battles in her mid-twenties,” Smith said. “They went through it like thirties.”
While her legal challenges were successful in finding American Radium guilty of negligence and causing the company to pay compensation, for many young women the damage has been done. Of the Radium Girls who shared Fryer’s work, countless fell permanently ill and more than 30 have died. Fryer herself succumbed to the poison of her job in her early 30s.
The show “Radium Girls”, written by DW Gregory, chronicles the life and efforts of Grace Fryer.
Despite the description of events from 100 years ago, there is still something relevant to the story, Smith said.
He tries to produce relevant plays, and “Radium Girls” makes him think of the current struggles between the working classes and the mega-rich, how today’s workers push back against low wages and unsafe working conditions, especially in times of pandemic.
“There is one line in the show that stands out,” Smith said. “A character says, ‘It’s a bit like that now.’ And there is another sentence that says “People are dying everywhere”. And this is something I heard a lot during the COVID pandemic. But the line ignores the source and blames nature rather than the poor working conditions these girls have been put into. “
While the conflicts of “Radium Girls” can easily fit into the present, this synchronicity fails to capture Smith’s overall attraction to the play. He finds Grace Fryer’s story inspiring and thinks this American folk hero could be a role model for young women.
“I hope young girls will see a representation of determined women pushing for their rights and for quality workplaces and equal pay,” he said.
He also thinks it’s important that the actors at Flagstaff High School are offered strong roles.
“I work with teenage girls every day,” he said. Many of them are seen in plays and musicals as a damsel in distress. And they’re constantly portrayed as pawns in a love story. ‘Radium Girls’ pays off because there is teenage girls who are the centerpiece of this story in a rewarding way. This play gives them the opportunity not to be the damsel in distress or the pawn of the love story. They become the fighters.
The production of “Radium Girls” will feature the combined efforts of at least 65 students. Smith helped with the directing (and even a brand new, specially written scene in the second act), but the rest was erected by the hands and hearts of young actors and technicians.
This has not been easy. Security measures demanded that rehearsals be conducted with masks, and facial expression is a crucial part of the theater, so the actors worked exceptionally hard to make up the difference. But when the curtains open, there won’t be any masks on stage, and Smith isn’t concerned. His students are engaged and they have succeeded in two shows with masked rehearsals in the past.
Smith expects “Radium Girls” to be the best yet.
“Three times the charm,” he said.
Opening night is Thursday, but the show will also have performances on Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the door, and at FHSperformancearts.org. Smith encourages everyone (over 5 years old) to see the educational, powerful and sometimes dark and painful game. He also encourages people to get involved as volunteers so that his students and the Flagstaff community can continue to enjoy the privilege of theater education.
“Theater in public schools is something that doesn’t always happen, and it’s also at the end of the rope when budget cuts happen,” he said. “If someone is looking for places to go for their tax credit, public school theater and music programs are definitely always looking for that. “