This post contains mild spoilers for What the Constitution Means to Me.
At the start of the Tony-nominated play What the Constitution Means to Me, the writer and performer Heidi Schreck bounds cheerfully onto the stage wearing a sunny smile and a cupcake-yellow blazer. She then proceeds to savage the revered, 232
-year-old text on which the U.S. was built. The play is never more electrifying than when Schreck’s charisma curdles into fury over how the entire American legal framework has rendered women’s lives worthless.
As a teenager growing up in small-town Wenatchee, Washington, Schreck earned college money by giving speeches about the Constitution at American Legion halls around the country, in front of crowds of approving veterans. What the Constitution Means to Me begins as a re-creation of one such competition, the set a replica of an American Legion hall, complete with drab maroon carpeting and a humorless Legionnaire moderator who keeps time. Schreck plays her younger self, a horny, “psychotically polite” teenager who has intense feelings for both Patrick Swayze and the Constitution. Fifteen-year-old Heidi is in love with the document’s expansiveness, and its miraculous ability to reflect the nation’s changing values and aspirations.
But Schreck, as her adult self, has developed deep reservations about how the supreme laws of the land were engineered, with ample protections for landowning white men, but little regard for anyone else. She constantly steps outside of her younger character to interject. Her teenage optimism now faded, Schreck traces the ways in which the Constitution has failed generations of women, including those in her family.
The play builds toward a revelation about Schreck’s grandmother, who was powerless to protect her family from her second husband, a horrific abuser who repeatedly raped one of her daughters until Heidi’s own mother, at 14, testified against him in court. Schreck highlights the government’s approach to cases like these: In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the police department of Castle Rock, Colorado, had no obligation to enforce a protective order for Jessica Lenahan against her estranged ex-husband, who ultimately murdered their three young daughters.
It’s provocative, dark material that Schreck cuts with humor and wit. In what is largely a zigzagging one-woman show that combines memoir and legal analysis, she deftly builds a we’re-all-in-this-together intimacy with the audience. At both performances I attended, folks cheered at mentions of reproductive choice and marriage equality. They loved the obligatory recording of Ruth Bader Ginsburg that makes the case for nine women on the Supreme Court. In one of the play’s many digressions, Schreck mentions the post-Soviet Russian economy. They applauded uproariously when she cuts herself off and says that that’s another play entirely—a #resistance-friendly reference. It makes sense that Hillary Clinton is a fan.
I understand the impulse for camaraderie, but the chumminess ultimately felt like the greatest failing of an otherwise unflinching work. It’s impossible to talk about whom the Constitution has stripped the full benefits of citizenship from without addressing how this systematic mistreatment has fallen along starkly racial lines. Schreck nods at this fact throughout but shies away from naming it directly. White women, after all, have had a hand throughout history in supporting and defending misogynistic and racist politicians and policies, and have helped ensure that the scant rights parceled out are not also extended to all women. She mentions the recent Alabama law that criminalized abortion in the state without noting that it was the female Republican governor, Kay Ivey, who enthusiastically signed it.
In fact, the kinds of people whom the American legal system has been the most effective at safeguarding are a lot like those who were in the room at the Helen Hayes Theater: mostly rich, mostly white, many gray-haired. I wanted Schreck to ask this gathering to examine the ways in which their own lives have been advantaged by our comically lopsided justice system, the authority that instinctively sides with them, the schools they send their children to, the wealth they’ve accumulated, and whether they would be truly willing to give up those spoils for the prosperity of others.
Instead, Schreck opts for something far less confrontational. The play concludes with her facing off against a real-life competitive teenage debater about whether to abolish the Constitution, their positions determined by a coin toss. On both nights I saw the performance, Thursday Williams, a black high-school senior and an aspiring lawyer, was tasked with arguing in favor of preserving the decrepit national albatross. And so it was in her voice that the audience heard it would be far too risky to scrap what is known in favor of what is unknown; that the only way out was to vote, protest, and run for office, even when progress seems slow and excruciatingly uneven. The crowd loved it. For a work with a premise that felt revolutionary, that prescription was a letdown. The political realities of our country are merciless. Art, at least, should be the place to reach for something more imaginative.
An audience member is chosen every night to pick the winner of the debate. Twice, a woman elected to keep the Constitution.
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