Fairbanks Academy of Children’s Theatre showcases female factory workers of the early 20th Century this weekend

A true story of the tragedies and triumphs of female factory workers in the early 20th century. A play put together by the Fairbank Academy of Children's Theatre.
Published: Nov. 4, 2022 at 8:53 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - The luminous glow of radium.

What was once thought to be a medical remedy and an “undark” advantage to nighttime vision, later showed its glowing appearance had deadly consequences.

Radium Girls, a true story of the tragedies and triumphs of female factory workers in the early 20th century comes to life this weekend in a performance put together by the Fairbanks Academy of Children’s Theatre.

Amber Shepard plays Irene Rudolph and Katherine Wiley in the play. She said it is not uncommon for actors to play multiple roles. “My character Irene Rudolph is a dial painter, “said Shepard. “She worked in the factory with Grace Fryer and others like Katherine Schaub, and she was one of the people that got sick from radium poisoning and passed away very early on.”

In the early 1920′s, the U.S Radium Corporation, originally called the Radium Luminous Material Corporation, extracted and purified radium from carnotite ore to produce luminous paints. More information about this deadly occupation can be found at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health website.

While men were away at war, women and girls were exposed to radium in the 1920′s while painting watch dials with self-made luminous paint. There were three factories highlighted in the history books; one located in Orange, New Jersey, another in Ottawa, Illinois, and lastly, Waterbury, Connecticut. The workers were told the paint was harmless and many ingested the substance, even painting on their fingernails, face, and teeth.

“Well, 1920′s you know, science, not as advanced as it currently is,” Shepard added. And so, radium glows in the dark. So, they would make this paint and they would paint watches with this glowing paint for soldiers to be able to read them in the dark.”

This true story exposes the truth about the radiation exposure and sickness from radium that many girls working in the factories saw firsthand. The women would use their mouths to point to the tip of the paintbrush. In an excerpt from “Radium Victim Battles Death With Courage,” written by Florence L. Pfalzgray with the Orange, N.J. Daily Courier, on April 30, 1928, Fryer said, “Our instructors told us to point them with our lips,” she said. “I think I pointed mine with my lips about six times to every watch dial. It didn’t taste funny. It didn’t have any taste, and I didn’t know it was harmful.”

“It’s the true story and these are all real people in the show that we play are real people who existed and getting their case to court and trying to get justice essentially for what happened to them,” said Kylie Haas, who plays Grace Fryer.

Grace Fryer, who grew up in Orange, New Jersey worked at the factory. Without giving much of the play away, know she plays a prominent role in filing suit against the United States Radium Corporation in 1927.

“She worked with a radium adhesive paint that she was exposed to for several years and she ended up getting really sick,” said Kylie Haas, who plays Grace Fryer in this adaptation of Radium Girls. “So she decided to file a lawsuit against her company that she formally worked at and get compensation for what she had to go through essentially after leaving the factory.”

What Radium Girls brings to the stage is the history that led to proper safety precautions in the workplace and labor rights and laws that were established to protect those who worked at these facilities.

“Due to them being women and being brushed under the rug and with the current labor laws that were in place the statute of limitation only lasted two years,” said Shepard. “but they were discovering these issues years after they left, so they were dying at a rapid rate, but there was no way to get the compensation they needed.”

This show gives transparency into the world of these women, along with a history lesson for those who perform and partake in the experience.

Kylie Haas said she had never heard of Radium Girls until she read the script, after that, she wanted to know more, so she did her own research.

“I love history and I love researching women in history specifically, so this was like really fun to research and learn about,” said Haas. “Not only did I read the script but I went on to research everything that I could about Grace Fryer, it was all new and really fun to get to know her.”

She said she hopes everyone can learn more about these historic women and how they changed the way modern-day workers have basic rights.

“I just hope that people take away the appreciation for the labor laws that we have in place for today and it makes people think that there is always more to be done and hopefully more than anything it inspires people to look to these women and know what they did to get these labor laws implemented,” said Haas.

When asked if she could say something to Fryer now, Haas responded, “I would say thank you. And I would say I am so sorry that you had to go through so much and that it took so long for rights to be wronged.”

“I hope they just see how hard these women had to work to be able to be heard,” said Shepard. “I think being a woman in this day and age, I kind of take for granted how often my voice can be heard, and how people can see me. It’s very empowering it just fills you with this sense of like thankfulness.”

Performances are being held at the Performing Arts Center at West Valley High School from Friday, November 4 through Sunday November 6.

Tickets and more information about the performance are available at the Fairbanks Academy of Children’s Theatre website.