When the U.S. Constitution Is the Source Material for Your One-Woman Play

Heidi Schreck’s Tony-nominated Broadway show is as “messy” and full of contradictions as the founding document itself.

Joan Marcus

Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me is, on paper, quite a sloppy Broadway show. It begins with Schreck recounting her adolescent experiences competing in the American Legion’s Oratorical Contest, where high-school students give speeches on the U.S. Constitution (the prize money helped pay for her college education). As she reenacts her younger self’s presentation, Schreck steps out of character more and more often; she comments on the life she’d go on to lead, rhapsodizes about her connection to a toy sock monkey, and delves into the sad truths she learned about her family history. Eventually, Schreck abandons her teenage recollections entirely, joking that a more expensive show would be able to change the America Legion Hall set behind her. Then, she invites an actual high-school student onstage with her to debate whether the document should be abolished.

The themes don’t tie up perfectly, and Schreck doesn’t offer easy answers. This is no TED Talk with a punchy, definitive conclusion. Instead, the show ends with Schreck and her teenage debate partner sitting back-to-back and asking each other questions about the future, as the lights dim to black. A finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the play is as open-ended as the laws it’s discussing, a hodgepodge of ideas, memories, and critiques spanning Schreck’s whole life, much as the Constitution is forever being amended and argued over. “It’s a messy collision of political thought and law and questions and the weirdness and chaotic energy of actual human lives,” Schreck told me in an interview at the Helen Hayes Theater, where the show is running until August 24.

She’s talking about both her play, which has been nominated for two Tonys (Best Play and Best Actress) after a hit transfer to Broadway, and the document itself. The speech that Schreck delivered as a teenager at American Legion halls around the country compared the Constitution to a crucible, a fiery vessel fusing competing ingredients into something functional. Her contemporary take wrestles with the fact that the Constitution relies on “negative rights,” largely saying that the government cannot do things (such as bar free speech), but doesn’t mandate “positive rights,” like saying the government can provide certain services (such as health care or education). She then relates how not having those kinds of services affected her family and women like her over the decades.

As the show goes on, Schreck tries to reconcile the Constitution’s many flaws. “I think the act of examining it every night and exploring it in this very personal, very emotional way has led me to question a lot of things about how our laws are made and how our country works,” she told me. “I have become frustrated with how difficult it is to amend and change. I have become frustrated about what I believe are the structural impediments to democracy baked into it—the Electoral College, the Senate.”

Schreck’s play grapples with the fact that U.S. courts have offered wildly different interpretations of the Constitution depending on the era. Perhaps the best example of the document’s mutability is the Ninth Amendment, a one-sentence part of the Bill of Rights that clarifies that a right can still exist even if it isn’t explicitly laid out.

“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” the text reads. Schreck recalled that the constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe described the Ninth Amendment as “the only piece of writing in the document that tells you how to read it,” a mini instruction manual reminding the country that the Bill of Rights is a work in progress. Schreck interprets the amendment to mean, “We didn’t write down every single thing—that’s part of your work as a country, as a society, as people, to figure out what other rights need to be protected.”

The Ninth Amendment has been debated since its inception. The conservative jurist Robert Bork famously called it an “inkblot” worth ignoring at his failed Supreme Court confirmation hearings, while Justice Arthur Goldberg cited it in his concurrence on the case Griswold v. Connecticut, which struck down a law criminalizing the use of contraceptives. That the amendment was crucial to such a pivotal decision while its vagueness is still a matter of academic discussion is all part of the bundle of contradictions that Schreck is digging into. “I like that there’s something in the Bill of Rights that’s difficult to parse, that suggests that it isn’t all spelled out here,” she said.

For that reason, she’s bothered by the notion of “originalism” supported by jurists such as Bork and the late Antonin Scalia, who argued that the document shouldn’t be open to much interpretation at all. Schreck says she wants to reclaim the word originalism. “It does seem absurd to me that there’s a view of this document that says it’s whole and perfect the way it was created. That, to me, seems like magical thinking,” she said. “There’s [another] view of originalism that says originally the document was designed to be a living thing … it’s obviously alive, because it’s changed tremendously over the last 200 years.”

Still, the growing emphasis on originalism has sometimes turned the Supreme Court into a bulwark against more activist legislation, leaving Schreck to wonder if things might not work better with a clean slate. At the end of every performance, she and her young sparring partner (played by either Thursday Williams or Rosdely Ciprian, real high-school students from New York, depending on the night) debate abolishing the Constitution entirely and put the question to the audience for a vote. While Schreck estimated that the audience picks “keep” about 85 percent of the time, she noted that current affairs often influence the results.

“In the last couple weeks, and this happened during the Kavanaugh hearings too, people have been voting to abolish a lot more,” Schreck said, referring to recent anti-abortion laws passed in various states with the explicit aim of drawing Supreme Court attention. “I think anytime the people coming to this show feel like ... these structures really are not serving us, that’s when [they] seem ready to, in the context of theatrical pretend, burn it all down.” My audience played it safe, siding with Williams, who argued that night for “keep.” Schreck and her scene partners might take either side depending on the night, but she has found that who is arguing which position doesn’t really matter.

“I’m fascinated by the fact that, even within the context of [the] play, the audience takes [the vote] seriously enough not to want to put our country at risk. Which I appreciate—them taking it that seriously,” she said with a laugh. To her, the debate is there to prod the audience into questioning the foundations of American democracy. “I’m trying to reflect the fact that these very abstract laws are connected to the most important parts of people’s lives, but also the weird little personal parts of our lives, which is why I feel the freedom to talk about the four generations of abuse in my family, but also my sock monkey,” she said. For most audience members, the Constitution is mere background noise for their day-to-day lives. Schreck’s play brings it to the forefront, where she thinks it belongs.