She says she’s been working on it for ten years, but you could argue that Heidi Schreck’s extraordinary show about the United States Constitution – funny and infuriated, analytical and confessional, erudite and heartbreaking — began some three decades ago. That is when, as a 15-year-old from Wenatchee, Washington, Schreck competed in oratorical contests about her personal connection to America’s founding document, sponsored by American Legion halls across the country, in order to win enough prize money to pay for her college education.
In a set that’s a facsimile of an American Legion Hall, at least as Schreck recalls it – full of photographs of old white men, and missing a door — “What the Constitution Means to Me” begins with a re-creation of one of those contests and a gentle parody of her 15-year-old self delivering her bubbly oratory. It’s amusing, but it’s also informative:
“I’d like to talk about the most magical and mysterious amendment of them all: Amendment Nine. Amendment Nine says: ‘The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.’ This means that just because a certain right is not explicitly written in the Constitution, it doesn’t mean you don’t have that right. The fact is there was no possible way for the framers to put down every single right we have— the right to brush your teeth, sure you’ve got it, but how long do we want this document to be?”
But Schreck soon makes clear that “What The Constitution Means to Me” is not going to be a traditional play. She frequently breaks out of her teenage character ( Mike Iveson memorably breaks out of his character too, the American Legionnaire who is host of the contest.) She swerves right and left, digresses, improvises – much in the way, she seems to be saying, that the 200+ year history of the Constitution is full of improvisation, of swerving to the right and to the left. Though the show often feels informal and spontaneous, it is actually all scripted. “You probably think I’ve gone off on a tangent,” she tells us at one point. “I haven’t.”
The remarkable mix of civic lesson and storytelling finds its fullest expression when Schreck takes us through the 14th amendment. She explains its history, helps us see its beauty, and shows us how it’s been undermined. She plays audio recordings of some of the outrageous discussions the Justices had in deciding to deny that a woman has a Constitutional right to contraception and to protection from domestic violence. She also talks about the women of her family, going back generations, and how they’d been belittled, exploited and abused, and she brilliantly ties together this personal history with Constitutional history. She explains how the 1973 Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade “was a special moment for the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments.” Then she segues to tell the story of her own abortion.
Schreck’s play ends with a debate between her and a current teenage debater, Thursday Williams (who alternates the role with Rosdely Ciprian.) The debate topic: Should the U.S. Constitution be abolished, Schreck taking the affirmative position. A member of the audience was picked to represent the audience and select the winner. Earlier, Schreck had said:
“When I started making this ten years ago, I had fundamental faith in this document. One I think most of us share. I knew it was born in corruption. I knew that the people who made it were slave owners, who didn’t think women and people of color were fully human. But I believed in the genius of this document, in its ability to evolve over time. Now I wonder, though, what does it mean that the document will not protect us from the violence of men? Sorry, I don’t mean to— I really have no desire to vilify men. I’m the daughter of a father. The wife of a husband. Some of my best friends are men! I’m stating facts: More American women have been killed by violent male partners in the last century than Americans have been killed in wars, including 9/11.”
I suspect the audience member who judged the debate was a plant on the night I saw the play at Greenwich House Theater, where it is scheduled to run through December 30th. In any case, I can’t imagine anybody, after hearing the arguments, voting to repeal and replace the Constitution. Rather, we’re left with an impulse to support and defend the Constitution, which feels under attack.
In the week when Schreck’s play was presented as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks Festival in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated President Trump’s Muslim travel ban. When the show opened this September for a run at the New York Theatre Workshop, the Senate confirmation hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court featured testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they both were teenagers, and testimony by Kavanaugh denying the allegation and declaring that he was the victim of an organized hit job that had destroyed his family. “This confirmation process has become a national disgrace. The Constitution gives the Senate an important role in the confirmation process, but you have replaced advice and consent with search and destroy.” Now, extended several times, the show has moved to a new venue, shortly after:
The forced resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions
The news that the President ordered the Justice Department to prosecute his political enemies,
The guilty plea by the President’s long-time lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen to lying to Congress in relation to the Mueller Russia investigation.
It’s hard to imagine a more timely show than “What The Constitution Means To Me,” but would it ever not be timely? It is really about what the Constitution means to all of us.
What the Constitution Means To Me
New York Theatre Workshop at Greenwich House Theater
Written by Heidi Schreck; Directed by Oliver Butler
Set design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Michael Krass, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar
Cast: Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson, Heidi Schreck and Thursday Williams
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $34 to $92
What The Constitution Means to Me is scheduled to run through December 30, 2018