“With great power, comes great responsibility.” – Ben Parker, FDR, Churchill and others
I often encourage my students to think outside the box. I remember one yeshiva break when my father (a physicist) took us on a tour of Heysham nuclear power plant, about 50 miles north of Liverpool and Manchester. One of 11 nuclear plants that collectively generate around 16 percent of the UK’s power needs, it was certainly an “out of the box” excursion, and unusual enough that I still remember it three decades later. A few years ago I “paid it forward” by taking my own kids on a tour of Brookhaven National Lab’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider where, according to their website, “physicists from around the world study what the universe may have looked like in the first few moments after its creation.”
This brings me to my review of last month’s Stern College Dramatics Society’s production of Radium Girls, exploring the lives of several women who voiced their safety concerns to industry titans who tried to silence them. Even though the events portrayed happened about a century ago, the play was especially resonant because some of the issues, like (women) speaking “truth to power,” and employees feeling powerless and/or intimidated, are still very relevant today.
In the words of the play’s artistic director and Stern College’s English department professor, Reuven Russell, “Although the play dramatizes the time when radium and its uses were first discovered over 100 years ago, its relevance in pitting corporate profit versus the health and well-being of the people it serves is quite eerie.”
Definitely Google “Radium Girls” to learn more about this fascinating part of U.S. history. According to britannica.com, “The legacy of the Radium Girls can’t be understated. Their case was among the first in which a company was held responsible for the health and safety of its employees, and it led to a variety of reforms as well as to the creation of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA].”
With the Spring semester underway, I had a chance to catch up with a few of the cast. Gillian is a double major in business analytics and marketing (hoping to work in marketing analytics). She’s been “involved with theatre since I was nine and have worked in all kinds of off and onstage roles … I’ve worked with lights, stage management, and direction, but before this project, never sound … I wanted to learn something new from my first theatre experience at Stern.” When I asked how or if her theater involvement would influence her future career path, she said, “I think the teamwork skills and problem-solving I learned … will help me in any future career.”
Several cast members played multiple characters. Shani, a computer science major, played four of them and I was astounded when she told me that it took less than two weeks to learn all her lines.
Playing the conflicted (male) protagonist, Elisheva, majoring in psychology and minoring in business, shared that it “was an exciting challenge for me as an actor, as I wanted to ensure that I portrayed him not as a simple villain, but as a human with a moral conscience, despite his many questionable choices throughout the play. His experience with making decisions that he then has to grapple and contend with is universally relatable, and illustrates one of my favorite things about theater: its ability to depict universal aspects of humanity in a way that elicits a powerful form of empathy.”
Amalya is majoring in business management, with a psychology minor. An aspiring attorney, I asked her what she learned about herself while engaged in this production. “I learned how to completely immerse myself in a task. While I was acting, at a certain point it wasn’t just about recalling lines, it was about paying attention to others’ reactions and having sincere reactions in turn. I also learned how to better manage potential anxiety when it came to performing in front of others.” With these skills, I’ve no doubt she’ll make a great attorney! She also commented that the play “taught me the importance of a work-life balance, how (to prioritize) life over work, because continuing to work is what ultimately destroyed the Radium Girls.”
Each cast and crew member is to be commended not just for staging a series of performances every night the week before finals, but for carving out time in their busy lives and heavy dual curriculum to learn their lines, create the scenery, practice, etc. These “out of the box” students have something exceptional to put on their resumes. While challenging themselves to develop and hone new skills and collaborate to produce an outstanding (two-hour-long) product, they also challenged the audience to consider our conceived and operative notions of legal, ethical, cultural, gender and moral norms. I feel fortunate to have witnessed the fruits of their labor and to be inspired by the passion and dedication with which they emulated “the Creator” with their own creative acts and acting. To them, I wish: Chizku V’imtzu!