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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Pulling back the curtain on ‘Radium Girls’

D.W. Gregory’s play, “Radium Girls” will open April 4 at the University Hall theater. The play is based on the real-life story of female factory workers in the 1920s who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with radium paint. It follows their journey seeking justice for the ills of the U.S. Radium Corporation that hid knowledge about the possibility of radium poisoning from the public.  

The play’s director, Carrie Ann Quinn, was able to offer some insight into the process of the play’s production. 

Ahaan Gore: So, why did you choose this play?  

Carrie Ann Quinn: I chose this play as I really wanted to direct an ensemble piece, and the great thing about this one is actors have multiple roles, which brings a good challenge for students to develop. It also suits my aesthetic as a director, as I prefer more fast-paced plays and film-like plays in terms of transitions and short scenes. I also like things that flow, since I was a dancer, and I think of plays in terms of choreography. I see all these elements that suit my vision as a director in this play. I also chose this play because I like stories about women and people of color, as their stories aren’t often told. The “Radium Girls” story exactly fits this theme. Although the girls all tragically lost their lives, their actions saved people’s lives in the future. This story is even relevant today, as we hear stories all the time of factory workers who lose their lives from being exploited by big corporations.  

AG: Tell me a bit about the process that’s gone into making a period drama like this one historically accurate.

CAQ: So, we have 18 different settings throughout this play, and it’s all done on one stage. I worked with Professor Amy Sue Hazel who is a scenic painter and designer. She designed the stage to suit multiple settings, and to reflect the 1920s factory environment. For the research, we have a student dramaturg who has done extensive research into the chemistry of radium and the historical accuracy that goes into making such a play. He’s going to be providing a projection exhibit in the theater, where all his research and photos on the real history of the play will be displayed on a big wall.  

AG: You spoke about female narratives and the importance of telling female stories. What about D.W. Gregory, an accomplished female playwright, and her work speaks to you on a personal level?  

CAQ: I like the fact that there always is a comedic element to her plays. In this play specifically, she writes a story about the narratives of these girls who came largely from immigrant families in New Jersey. In order to capture the real essence and heaviness of the play, a comedic element was required, as it follows 15-year-old to 18-year-old delightful young women who were just so happy to get this job initially. It’s important to get their happiness and giddiness in the beginning to really understand and feel the tragedy at the end. D.W. Gregory calls her play a contemporary fable. I find this metaphor to be very on-point, as radium was pitched as this magical thing, but just like in every fable, something that is enchanted can also become a curse.  

AG: There is a love story in this play between Tom and Grace. Could you tell us a bit about this for our readers?  

CAQ: I think Tom is a lovely character. He’s a very supportive fiancé. People coming to the show will enjoy seeing how their relationship progresses in the play and how difficult it is to love someone who’s going to die, eventually. It isn’t a spoiler that the radium girls die due to the injuries contracted in the factory.  

AG: Do students do all the work behind the scenes as well?  

CAQ: Yes, the students do everything from designing the costumes, the stage, the makeup, the props, etc. So, it’s a culmination of all areas of theater and students from all aspects of the theater department who come together to make this play.  

Sierra S. Wilcox, a lead actor of the play who plays four different roles, was also able to answer questions regarding her involvement in the play.

AG: Why did you audition for this play?  

Sierra Wilcox: I chose to audition for this play because I had never done a historical play before. I’ve only ever done musicals or dramatic acting, so I thought it would be an interesting experience. I also find the story of the radium girls fascinating as a woman. I was surprised that I didn’t know about this incident, as I hadn’t learned about it in history. I also learned that part of these incidents took place in Connecticut, and even though I’m from Connecticut, I had never heard of this.  

AG: Tell us a bit about the characters that you play.  

SW: I play multiple different characters. I play the lead character who has been working there for two years. She is shown to get consistently worse and worse because of the illness she contracted at the factory. In real life, she contacted a doctor with the issue, but she wasn’t taken seriously. She was disregarded until she got terribly sick. These girls would lick the brush and then dip them in paint, not realizing that the radium was slowly killing them. Then I play Ms. Wiley who fought for working class men and women in New Jersey at the time. She kind of makes the issue these girls faced her own to help the bring them justice and compensation at the very least. I’d describe her as unapologetically strong and independent.  

AG: How have the rehearsals been going? What’s the chaos of changing costumes like?  

SW: They’ve been going really smoothly. Carrie Ann is the best director I’ve ever worked with. She has a plan for when we get in and get out and makes the flow of the acting process very interesting and fun. Changing costumes in between scenes is extremely stressful, but once you get it done with it feels very cathartic.  

AG: Lastly, what’s something you would like readers to know about the play?  

SW: I think what I find interesting and disturbing about this play is that corporations and people in power are willing to sacrifice the lives of little girls for profits. Why are we okay with little kids dying for profits? I feel that message bleeds into everything we’re experiencing now with events around the world where corporations and people in power exploit the powerless.  

“Radium Girls” opens April 4 and will run until April 12. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. for the April 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11 and 12 shows, and 2 p.m. for the matinee show on April 6. All shows will take place in the University Hall Gallery, which is on the first floor of the University Hall, Room 1210. Tickets are $12 for UMass Boston community members and $17 for general public, according to the UMass Boston website. Members of the UMass Boston community, as well as friends and family interested in attending, can find the tickets on the UMass Boston University Tickets website. Be sure to buy them in advance, as they sell out fast!  

  1. https://www.umb.edu/news/recent-news/radium-girls-opens-april-4/