Viewers might be astonished that Heidi Schreck’s funny, poignant and pointed play feels like a direct response to the Senate hearings on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court — taking on Barrett’s mentor Anthony Scalia, and praising Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as if to say: Whatever the Constitution means to you, Judge Barrett, here’s what it means to me.
The timing seems perfect for this film of the 2019 Broadway hit, which is an unusual mix of civic lesson and personal storytelling. But, as those of us who saw it on stage realize, what may be most extraordinary about “What The Constitution Means to Me” is that its timeliness may well be timeless.
As a 15-year-old from Wenatchee, Washington, Schreck tells the audience from the stage of the Helen Hayes Theater, 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. In the first half hour or so of this 100-minute show, she re-creates one of those contests, assuming the gently self-parodying persona of her 15-year-old self, the source of much of the play’s humor. She brings on Mike Iveson as an American Legionnaire who is serving as the moderator of the contest. The set is how Schreck recalls the halls from three decades ago – walls completely covered with photographs of Legionnaires, and no door.
That wall of white men is one of the clues to what will follow. She discusses the ninth and the fourteenth amendments, first as the 15-year-old, explaining how important these amendments have been in protecting the rights of those Americans previously unprotected. And then she drops the teenage persona to explain that those in need of protection include women, which the original document did not consider citizens, or even full human beings. (So much for “originalism.”) She introduces the stories of the several generations of women in her family, 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 – in one particularly egregious case, Castle Rock v. Gonzales, led by Justice Scalia.
“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.”
If her anger at the failings of the Constitution and those who interpret it is restrained, leavened by charm and humorous asides, it’s undeniable when she brings on stage 14-year-old Rosdely Ciprian, a high school debater, to argue with her on the topic: Should we abolish the United States Constitution?
“What The Constitution Means To Me” is directed for Amazon by Marielle Heller, who inserts shots of audience reaction, but otherwise presents what looks like a fairly straightforward recording, with none of the fancy camerawork of Spike Lee’s newly released “American Utopia” on HBO. As in that film, some things are lost in translation from stage to screen. (Each theatergoer was given a copy of the Constitution! Each night, an actual member of the audience decided the debate question about whether to abolish the Constitution.)
When the show opened in September 2018 for an Off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop, a year after it debuted at the Clubbed Thumb theater festival, the Senate was holding hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which 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.” How more timely could Schreck’s show have been!
Now, it opens right after another Senate hearing and right before the vote – both for the Justice and for President. Although filmed in 2019, there is a moment of shock recognition when Thursday Williams (another teenage debater who alternated with Ciprian at Broadway performances) is shown at the end of “What the Constitution Means to Me” giving a speech from the stage:
“Just a glance at current headlines should tell you that this moment really is different. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire. With that being said, if you want to change a country, you need to wake up, get involved, go vote…”