Historical play “These Shining Lives” shares lessons still being resolved today
“These Shining Lives,” the tragic story of the women who were knowingly poisoned by their employer in the 1920s and 30s while working with radium-laced paint, will be presented as Bluffton University’s fall play Nov. 3-6. The play is an intimate look at the real-life story of Catherine Donohue, who successfully led a campaign to improve working conditions for future generations.
The cast is ready to share a story that features events which changed the United States for the better.
“I think the play is so awesome because it is such a social-justice oriented play. This play is a great example of this year’s Civic Engagement Theme: Creativity, the Arts and Civic Life,” said Emily Short ’17, a biblical and theological studies major from Archbold, Ohio. “The play infuses aspects of social justice and other academic lessons we learn at Bluffton and connects it with art to make the lessons even more impactful for the people in the audience."
Even though the play is set nearly 100 years ago, the cast and the play’s director, Dr. Melissa Friesen, professor of theatre, are finding parallels to the present.
Brianna Lugibihl ’17, a middle childhood education major from Gomer, Ohio, plays the lead, Catherine Donohue. This May, she took part in a three-week cross-cultural experience to Bangladesh, a country that made headlines in 2013 as the site of the deadliest disaster in the history of the global garment industry. More than 1,000 workers were killed and 2,500 were injured when an eight-story factory building collapsed. During the experience, Lugibihl toured the site. Participants also toured factories which are still in operation and learned about fair-trade opportunities in the country.
She describes both the workers in Bangladesh and the “Radium Girls” as models of resiliency. “The people of Bangladesh are not waiting on the ground for somebody to step on them. They work really hard and they do the best with what they have. They are constantly using their resources to make their lives the best they can,” said Lugibihl.
Just as the people of Bangladesh are working to improve working conditions, the “Radium Girls” worked to improve working conditions in America. Donohue and others took their case to the Supreme Court, and won.
Lugibihl says she was immediately drawn to a stylistic note at the beginning of the play that says, despite the sad nature of the story, the production should be performed with spirit, energy and verve.
“It shows the story in a way that doesn’t depict these women as victims,” said Lugibihl. “They are heroes for trying to change working conditions even though they weren’t going to experience the impact of that change in their own lifetime.”
Short plays Catherine’s co-worker Pearl. She too finds parallels between her semester-long cross-cultural experience to Guatemala in fall 2015 and the story of the “Radium Girls.”
Guatemala is emerging from 30 years of civil war, and while Short was in the Central-American country, the president resigned following months of peaceful protests.
“In Guatemala, this served as a wake-up call that people have power if they work together. They realized they have the power to affect change,” said Short. “We see this also in the play. After the women are fired for being too sick to work, one of the girls brings up that there is nothing they can do. Instead, they band together, and they take the case to court, and they win their case. The win doesn’t really help these women, but it helps humanity.”
Friesen says she was drawn to the play because of the parallels that can be drawn to events taking place even in the United States today.
“I was really reminded of the Flint water crisis, and even though it’s very different from the workplace- labor struggles depicted in “These Shining Lives,” there’s the link to the public health crises in our everyday lives right here in the Midwest. It’s an example of how shortcuts and trying to save money can lead to bad decisions that affect people’s lives and can actually kill people,” said Friesen.
These are difficult issues of great moral and ethical importance. However, Friesen says there are several scenes filled with friendship, happiness and love as well.
“The play takes us through a whirlwind. It’s a really rich play with a heavy topic, but there are also moments of humor and lovely moments between Catherine and her husband,” said Friesen.
“These Shining Lives” by Melanie Marnich will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 3-5 and 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 6 in Ramseyer Auditorium in College Hall. Reserved tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for senior citizens (65 and over) and non-Bluffton students. Tickets are available online at http://tickets.bluffton.edu or at the Marbeck Center information desk. For assistance with tickets, call the box office at 419-358-3239.
I think the play is so awesome because it is such a social-justice oriented play. This play is a great example of this year’s Civic Engagement Theme: Creativity, the Arts and Civic Life. The play infuses aspects of social justice and other academic lessons we learn at Bluffton and connects it with art to make the lessons even more impactful for the people in the audience.”