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Gerald Carpenter: UCSB Docudrama Revisits 1930s Activism

This Friday through Saturday, Nov. 17 in its Performing Arts Theater, the UCSB Department of Theater and Dance will present a nonfiction play dramatizing an all-but-forgotten episode of industrial tragedy from the 1920s and 1930s, These Shining Lives, written by Melanie Marnich and directed by UCSB faculty member Tom Whitaker.

The play will correct several historical misconceptions, but especially these three: 1) that the dangers of handling radioactive materials only became apparent after Hiroshima, 2) that confrontations between workers and management during the period between the two world wars always centered on unions and strikes, and 3) that women always played supportive roles in these conflicts, or were simply passive victims.

Here are the facts, in the words of the UCSB publicity material (note that the term “radium dial” refers to the use of paint containing radium on the dials of clocks and watches, to make the hands and numbers visible in the dark): “In 1922 the Radium Dial Company established a dial-painting studio in Ottawa, Illinois. By 1925, the Ottawa studio became the largest dial-painting studio in the United States, producing over 4,000 glow-in-the-dark watch dials per day.

“The company offered the ideal employment opportunity for young women in the 1920s and 1930s, with enjoyable work and competitive pay. But the job that offered these young women a newfound freedom soon became their worst nightmare. In 1927, the first female dial painter died of what would later be diagnosed as extreme radium poisoning. Thirty-four more documented cases (and probably many more undocumented) followed suit over the next 15 years. However, in 1936, Catherine Wolfe Donahue and a small group of fellow dial painters filed a lawsuit against the Radium Dial Company. The company appealed the case seven times.

“Catherine Donahue died in 1938 without ever seeing a cent of compensation. Finally, in 1939, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Radium Dial’s last appeal, and the Radium Dial workers were awarded $16,000. These Shining Lives celebrates how, in the midst of a nation recovering from war and suffering a major economic depression, a small group of people can find strength in gathering together to fight for their labor and health-care rights, to hold big business accountable for the human casualties it leaves in its wake.

“The women in this play made incredible strides in making their voices heard, and proving that their lives and health matter.”

It is not irrelevant that Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of radium, died in 1934, of anemia brought on by prolonged exposure to the substance.

These Shining Lives plays at 8 p.m. Nov. 9-11 and Nov. 13-17 and at 2 p.m. Nov. 10-11 and Nov. 17. There is no late seating in the Performing Arts Theater. Tickets cost $13 to $17 and are available from the Ticket Office at 805.893.7221.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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