Disturbing, timely and leavened by dry wit, What the Constitution Means to Me is an impassioned play about American governance that may renew your faith in Broadway.
Heidi Schreck, who wrote the autobiographical appraisal of U.S. democracy and appeal to improve upon it, plays herself, both at present day and at 15 years old.
Her mother encouraged her to enter American Legion-sponsored debates about the Constitution and compete for prize money. “I was able to pay for my entire college education this way,” she says, to applause. “Thank you — it was 30 years ago and it was a state school, but thank you.”
With excellent comic timing, the actress and playwright (who’s written for Billions and other TV shows) celebrates the document for articulating fundamental rights. “I loved it, I was a zealot,” she says, while also examining its role in abetting inequality and domestic violence.
What separates the work from a TED Talk or college lecture is her subtle performance, as directed by Oliver Butler, and the evocative storytelling. She describes her unplanned pregnancy at 21 in her conservative, “abortion-free” hometown of Wenatchee, Washington; and the brave and complicated women in her family who endured horrific abuse. As she explained in an NPR interview with Jeff Lunden, she wanted to explore how their lives were shaped and harmed by the document.
Ratified after the Civil War, the 14th Amendment gets special treatment in the show. Schreck calls it a “giant, super-charged force field protecting all of your human rights,” while ruefully noting that it excludes half the population. “I want to emphasize that these amendments guaranteed equal rights only to men,” she says.
The Legion hall set, designed by Rachel Hauck, has walls lined with photos of men.
In one of the most fascinating sections, which is #MeToo-relevant, Schreck explores why her maternal grandmother failed to turn in her vicious second husband to the police, even after he repeatedly assaulted members of the family. Schreck suggests that Grandma Bette practiced “covert resistance.”
“Covert resistance is all the seemingly invisible actions a woman takes inside of a violent relationship that feels impossible for her to escape because she doesn’t make as much money as a man, because the police might not show up when she calls, because no one believes her when she does say something, because the laws tell her she is worthless.”
When Grandma Bette died, an uncle found $30,000 hidden under her mattress, with a note leaving the money to her kids. She’d been saving it for 50 years.
Schreck plays off Mike Iveson, who portrays both a legionnaire moderating a Constitutional debate and himself. The actor represents “positive male energy” onstage.
At the end of this unique theatrical event, Schreck debates a teenage girl on the subject of whether the Constitution should be continually revised or rewritten from the ground up. At the preview I attended, the teen was Thursday Williams, a hyper-articulate senior at William Cullen Bryant High School, in Queens. Schreck argued for a total makeover, while Williams countered that working within the system was more effective and less risky. An audience member was chosen to declare the winner. The setup and outcome vary depending on the performance.
Schreck describes being inspired by young feminists. Theatergoers may find Schreck to be the true inspiration.