What the Constitution Means to Me on Broadway: A Salve for the Politically Shell-Shocked

People are gushing about Heidi Schreck’s play as if it’s another Hamilton, and in some ways it is. No, it’s not a groundbreaking hip-hop musical.  Indeed, “What the Constitution Means to Me” is a play with no music, a three-person cast and an informal air. It wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate to sum it up as a civics lesson, Schreck telling stories about her life and her family to illustrate a few amendments of the United States Constitution.

Yet, like Hamilton, it’s a civics lesson that’s stimulated an extraordinary response. Introduced at a theater festival in 2017, it moved to Off-Broadway for a limited run (extended several times.) It is now on Broadway, in a limited run that’s already been extended to July 21st.

Several critics have called it the best and most important play of the season. Playwright Tony Kushner saw it three times, and found it “shamanistic, medicinal, restorative…every time I went back, I left feeling more hope about the survival of our democracy.”

I saw it Off-Broadway and liked it. Schreck is a good storyteller. The play is informative, enlightening even, inspiring me to re-read the U.S. Constitution (copies of which are distributed during the show.)  It also has some important, justifiably angry points to make about the Court-sanctioned subjugation of women. But on second viewing, on Broadway, I am not as carried away by this show as so many people seem to be, although I think I understand why they are.

A better analogy than Hamilton is probably Anne Nelson’s “The Guys,” which was presented at The Flea Theater not far from the World Trade Center right after 9/11. “What’s The Constitution Means to Me” has allowed people to gather communally in a time of crisis.  The crisis this time is not a foreign invasion, but what the theatergoers drawn to this show see as a domestic threat to democracy.

There are few discernible changes to the Broadway production from the play I saw Off-Broadway just four months ago. At the start, Schreck explains that as a 15-year-old from Wenatchee, Washington, she competed in oratorical contests about her personal connection to America’s founding document, sponsored by American Legion halls across the country. Her aim was to win enough prize money to pay for her college education, and she did, as she tells us to great applause. “Thank you; it was 30 years ago and it was a state school, but thank you,” she responds, in an ingratiating manner that she employs to good effect throughout

She then re-enacts one of those contests, with the aid of Mike Iverson as an official with the American Legion who serves as host, in a set that’s a facsimile of an American Legion Hall, at least as Schreck recalls it – missing a door, and full of photographs of old white men.

She discusses the ninth and the fourteenth amendments, first in the gently self-parodying persona of her bubbly teenage self and then dropping the persona, and playing her amiable adult self. While discussing these amendments, she introduces the stories of the several generations of women, hesitantly, as if having to overcome her emotion to speak of them – her great-grandmother, “purchased for 75 dollars when my great-great grandfather ordered her from the Matrimonial Times,” her grandmother, physically abused by her second husband, her mother scarred but escaping from the cycle of abuse. She weaves in these stories with several Supreme Court cases to make the point that the Court gutted laws meant to protect women from violence.

“What does it mean that the document will not protect us from the violence of men?” she asks, and then, in a halting, improvisational manner (albeit fully scripted) meant to maintain the rapport she’s established, she says: “Sorry, I don’t mean to— I really have no desire to vilify men. I love men. I do, I love you. I’m the daughter of a father! But the facts are extreme. Here’s one statistic, just one: More American women have been killed by violent male partners in the last century than Americans have been killed in wars, including 9/11. That is not the number of women who have been killed in this country; that is only the number of women who have been killed by the men who supposedly love them.”

When she said all that Off-Broadway, she had riffed more on her relationship with men:  “The wife of a husband. Some of my best friends are men.” I’m assuming at least this last sentence was removed because it took the coyness too far.

“What The Constitution Means to Me” ends with a debate between her and a current teenage debater. I saw it Off-Broadway with Thursday Williams. She alternates the role with Rosdely Ciprian, whom I saw on Broadway. The debate topic: Should the U.S. Constitution be abolished. Off-Broadway, Schreck took the affirmative position. On Broadway, she took the negative position – it should be kept. In both performances, a member of the audience was picked to represent the audience and select the winner. Off-Broadway, the audience member voted to keep the Constitution. I suspected at the time that this was a plant. But on Broadway, the audience member voted to abolish it. I realized the audience members selected are not plants.

Another realization that comes from seeing the show a second time was how calculated each and every ostensibly spontaneous moment – including her getting choked up in emotion when talking about her family.

I have mixed feelings about the show’s transfer to Broadway. Top ticket prices on Broadway are more than 70 percent higher than they were when the show ran Off-Broadway. “What The Constitution Means to Me” can still serve as a salve for the politically shell-shocked and disaffected; they just have to be a little richer.

What The Constitution Means to Me

Written by Heidi Schreck; Directed by Oliver Butler. Set by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Michael Krass,
Cast: Heidi Schreck, Mike Iveson, Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $49 to $159
What The Constitution Means to Me is scheduled to run through July 21, 2019

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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