Keep or abolish the Constitution? A fiery debate commences on Broadway

Heidi Schreck in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ (photo: Joan Marcus)Heidi Schreck in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ (photo: Joan Marcus)

A document that both the Tea Party and the A.C.L.U. hold dear, the U.S. Constitution is revered by many as a kind of national scripture. And like actual Scripture, it is too often cited as an infallible rulebook or trump card to settle arguments. It must either be a universal law, applicable to all, or an incoherent cipher onto which we can project whatever we choose. Right?

Maybe it is neither of those things, neither Bible nor Rorschach Test as the playwright/performer Heidi Schreck proposes in her surprisingly electrifying show “What the Constitution Means to Me,” now on Broadway after a hit run Off-Broadway last year. Part memoir, part delightfully wonky speech-and-debate exercise, Schreck’s play puts the narrative of her own life and that of her family, in particular her female forebears, in contention with the history of our nation’s founding document. And what emerges at the end of 90-plus minutes is a visceral sense of lives lived in the shadow of laws—laws that exclude as much as they protect and that can underpin an unjust social contract as easily as a more equitable one, depending on how they are enforced and interpreted.

Advertisement

Heidi Schreck’s new play puts the narrative of her own life in contention with the history of our nation’s founding document.

As Schreck demonstrates with painstaking detail and raw emotional force, this mutability more often than not still serves the interests of people who most closely resemble the document’s original framers: white male property owners.

On the other hand, a series of amendments since the founding have explicitly expanded some rights to immigrants, formerly enslaved people and their descendants, and women (though not to Native Americans). And at the fringes of the law’s shadow, in what Justice William O. Douglas called a “penumbra,” some new rights have been discerned by courts, including the right to birth control, abortion, same-sex marriage and freedom from workplace harassment. Many of these legal innovations remain on shaky ground, not only for their intrinsically contentious nature but because, as Schreck points out, they are not enumerated in the Constitution as positive rights. Instead they have been artfully carved out of a document far more concerned with constraining government action than with empowering individuals.

Lest this all sound dry or academic, rest assured: Schreck’s arguments are couched in a lovingly handmade entertainment that can be as funny as it is profound. On a set by Rachel Hauck that looks like a Natural History Museum take on an American Legion Hall, under Oliver Butler’s sneakily precise direction, Schreck begins the show as a version of her 15-year-old self, who once gave reverent speeches about the Constitution at such Legion halls throughout her home state of Washington, eventually collecting enough prize money to put herself through college. Under the watchful eye of a starchy Legionnaire, played by Mike Iveson, she digresses ever further from the planned speech format, as she challenges her now 40-something-year-old self to truthfully follow one of the speech contest’s original prompts: to “draw a personal connection between her own life and this great document.”

What good, Schreck wonders, is a Constitution that does not protect women?

That directive takes Schreck down a rabbit hole—a whole warren, really—of memory and reflection. She recalls the fate of her German great-great-grandmother, who was ordered from a catalog by a Washington logger; she later died in a state hospital at age 36 of “melancholia.” And she memorializes her grandmother, Bette, a strapping woman who nevertheless failed to confront her violent second husband, leaving that task to one of her daughters, Heidi’s mom. These stories are almost unutterably painful, and they are delivered with pin-drop intimacy by Schreck.

She soon broadens her lens to relate these familial struggles to the harrowing case of Jessica Gonzales, a Colorado woman who in 1999 sued her local police for failing to protect her from her estranged husband, who murdered their three young daughters. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 2005 ruled that the police department had no legal obligation under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to enforce the restraining order Gonzales had placed against her ex-husband.

What good, Schreck wonders, is a Constitution that does not protect women? And might its persistent failure to do so be one reason that women like her grandmother haven’t felt they could turn to the law for redress?

These hypotheticals are given a further twist when, in the final portion of the show, Schreck welcomes a teenage debater onstage to contest the future of the Constitution, and with the help of Iveson has an audience member vote to “keep” or “abolish” the document.

 

The exhilarating, all-stops-out debate that ensues—Schreck lays into the document’s defects with more-than-sporting vigor, and an impressively self-possessed Thursday Williams (alternating with Rosdely Ciprian) rousingly defends the Constitution’s pliability as its strength—is one of Broadway’s most unlikely emotional highs. It not only connects us with livewire immediacy to our current moment, in which the Constitution seems imperiled at the hands of an imperial president (in part following disturbing precedents of the previous two). The young debater’s unbowed fire, as much as Schreck’s own passionate engagement, also beckons us toward a future in which activism and engagement—at the ballot box, in street protests, in political organizing, even in acts of theatrical advocacy like this show itself—will likely be necessary to sustain rights we take for granted, let alone those still worth fighting for.

Like the U.S.S. Constitution, the naval frigate named by George Washington that is still in commission after more than two centuries, the American experiment is still afloat. Whether it is also adrift is up to us.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

One of the most amazing documents ever constructed by man!

There is a corrosive disease inflicting our world. It is called Critical Theory. Anything can be criticized and hopefully made better but that rarely happens. Instead there is focus on the flaws and not the good parts and the objective is to then rid us what was good but slightly flawed without any assurance something better will result.

Phillip Stone
4 months 2 weeks ago

If divine revelation is to be believed, all humans, both sexes, are remorselessly and relentlessly driven by pride, covetousness, anger, lust, gluttony, envy and sloth.
Any decent national constitution needs to put a bridle on these deadly sins sufficiently to dampen down anarchy and riot to a dull roar.

E.Patrick Mosman
4 months 2 weeks ago

The authors of the US Constitution, the Founding Fathers(Not PC) were
brilliant men and were writing a document creating a new government away from Kings,Emperors, dictators and one of the people, for the people, by the people. It was to be a union of the individual States and required a number of compromises and Amendments to protect individual rights and
to insure that every State had an equal say in the governing of the USA.The Constitution was never intended to dictate or adjudicate individuals or their right and wrong actions except for those included. The laws and legal systems of the States were the primary responsible parties for protecting its citizens.
The family matters that the play's author uses to attack the Constitution certainly did not rise to the level of Constitutional issues except in the mind of a lawyer.

Roland Greystoke
4 months 2 weeks ago

Trump Derangement Syndrome strikes again. When children don't get their way, instead of figuring out what they did wrong, they try to find external forces to place the blame on. #WalkAway

Scott Cooper
4 months 2 weeks ago

I could not agree more with the 4 comments posted here. I also was enjoying this article/review to a degree until I came to this cheap shot of a line that is as unfounded as it is often repeated: “... in which the Constitution seems imperiled at the hands of an imperial president...” As always, I ask, where is the evidence for this? How has this president ever indicated that he is bent on establishing authoritarian rule as the left and mainstream media claim? Granted, he is a narcissist (but no more so than several other presidents) and is often too sensitive and too willing to needlessly react and acknowledge baseless claims. But he has done nothing to imperil the Constitution or our way of government. At least the writer follows up his libelous swipe with what appears to be a concession of sorts with this: “... (in part following disturbing precedents of the previous two).” However, I would argue that while Bush certainly had his share of flaws in governing, he came nowhere near endangering our constitutional republic as much as President Obama did. And once the truth about Russian collusion, the Steele Dossier, the Clintons and the DNC, the FBI, and the Obama DOJ and White House all come to light, there will be even more evidence than all that was already in the open regarding our 44th commander-in-chief—increasing and consolidating the power of the federal government, especially the executive branch; the vigorous and unrelenting attacks on religious liberty; the subtle embrace of Islamo-fascism; disregard for a number of rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights while creating and protecting questionable “new rights;” using identity politics to further divide the nation along racial, sexual, and religious lines; and on and on.
And if Obama’s leftist progeny, so many of whom are now running for President in 2020 and of whom a number now sit in Congress, eventually seize power in DC and in our major cities (as just happened in Chicago), then we will see what authoritarianism really looks like when they achieve their ultimate goal for our Republic and our Constitution—rip it up and start again. In that case, God help us all to preserve our Union.

Anthony McCarthy
4 months 2 weeks ago

The Constitution was made by the slave owners like Madison and the northern business interests as represented by Hamilton to codify the inequality that favored them, they were explicit about that as you can read in Wendell Phillips' conclusively convincing book The Constitution a pro-slavery compact; or, Extracts from the Madison papers, etc. selected by Wendell Phillips, available in pdf format online. That's been an open secret since the Madison papers were published in the 1840s. Such things as inequality, the anti-democratic constitution of the Senate, the Electoral College, etc. were explicitly designed to prevent democracy so as to benefit the wealthy and powerful. The subsequent history of the country was a struggle by Black slaves, Women, working people, and other groups cut out of the original Constitution to force those extensions that "originalists" "Federalists" "strict constructionists" and others have fought to reverse. The thing is in such basic need of revision that the results would probably be taken as a new document.

Scott Cooper
4 months 2 weeks ago

Unfortunately, this argument that the Constitution is pro-slavery and pro-inequality is an old one as can be seen by the reference here to Wendell Phillips, a prominent abolitionist from the 1830s onward, and who, up until the Civil War was fully engaged, argued for the right to secession for slave states and against civil war to preserve the Union and abolish slavery. Unlike several other abolitionists of the time, Mr Phillips discounted the Constitution, based on the view that Mr. McCarthy upholds and promulgates here, and thus he failed to see the very seeds of slavery’s undoing in the words of the Constitution itself. Those who hold such a view both then as well as today then must obviously acknowledge, based on that view, that the infamous Dred Scott decision was rightly decided by SCOTUS and articulated correctly by Chief Justice Taney if the Constitution was written to protect and institutionalize the rights of slaveholders and the wealthy; but we all know that was and is not case.
In the words of James Madison himself:
"We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man."
-- James Madison, speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787
And:
“"[The Convention] thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men."
-- James Madison, Records of the Convention, August 25, 1787

Further, as Abraham Lincoln explains as to why slavery is not mentioned by name (and certainly not protected in the Constitution):
“Thus, the thing is hid away, in the Constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.”

The US Constitution was certainly not an anti-slavery document, but it was not a pro-slavery one either; it is, however, an anti-slavery document now.
It is also not a perfect document, thus we have had amendments right from its beginning. And its application has been far from perfect—from slavery through voting rights and right up to the evil of our day that like the evil of slavery was not mentioned originally, but has somehow been “permitted” by the Constitution—abortion.
I turn to one last quote to show the folly of the argument made by Mr. Phillips, Mr. McCarthy, and all those who seek to tear up and replace our founding charter, this living document that is the US Constitution to suit their own needs:

“A chart is one thing, the course of the vessel is another. The Constitution may be right, the Government is wrong.”
-Frederick Douglass
Glasgow, Scotland
March 26, 1860

Anthony McCarthy
4 months 1 week ago

As Wendell Phillips pointed out, at length in that book, Madison and others of "the founders" were explicit among themselves as to how they were cementing slavery into the Constitution. What any of them said at any one time is more than refuted by the structure they set up to make certain that any northern abolitionism, still then in its infancy, would not be able to legally overturn slavery - it, in fact, took a Civil War to do that. The constant line of Supreme Court rulings up to the Civil War, under a Court dominated by slave owners, USING THE TEXT OF THE DOCUMENT, culminating in the infamous Dred Scott decision, proves that is what the document was. The provisions of the anti-democratically constituted Senate (where the lynch laws went to die, where civil rights were filibustered at record length) and the electoral college (Madison didn't trust the economic underclass to not want an equal share of the wealth, either) prove that Madison in 1787 was a hypocrite. As has been noted, the great author of the claim that "All men are created equal" and equally endowed with rights, in 1776, was a devoted enslaver of Black People as he scientifically calculated the increase of his personal wealth with the birth of slaves enslaved by him. His PRACTICE of slavery made a mockery of his lofty rhetoric as he was trying to convince the working-class of his time to fight a revolution which would also advantage him, Madison, Washington, Hamilton, etc.

There is no accident that the enemies of equal rights, of economic justice, the Federalist Society has Madison as its logo, the practice started with Madison, maintained in the Supreme Court under the slave-owner Marshall, et all, under Taney (the author of the Dred Scott decision) is continued in the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts by the "strict constructionists-origianlists-etc."

Scott Cooper
4 months 1 week ago

So, are you saying then, time for a new Constitution?

Mike Bayer
4 months 2 weeks ago

The prime reason for the American Revolution was the issue of taxation. The British Government claimed Parliament had this right over British subjects, which the American colonists were. Rich white males who controlled the colonial legislatures thought only their legislatures could tax them. After winning their Revolution, those men then established a government to protect their property rights and individual liberties. However, from the beginning the American experiment in self government has consistently expanded the notions of liberty and constitutional rights from that small group (the 1% of their time) to now encompass all Americans, at least in theory. The question Americans now confront is whether we continue to struggle for equal rights for all or we regress.

Scott Cooper
4 months 2 weeks ago

Once again, Mr. Bayer reduces this great experiment to very simplistic terms and acquiesces to the vagaries of our times in order to court favor with the flavor of the month, which right now is socialism with all of its denial of freedom and liberty.
He , of course, subtly alludes to the promised land of Canada, so pure from the stain of slavery, that our American brethren forget to this day that our crazy cousins to the north still bend their knees to a genocidal monarchy that denies individual liberty. I say that those treasonous Americans who love the false parliamentary monarchy and English bitchdom that is Canada should flee to her and hide in her filthy skirts.
The US Constitution will always struggle for equal rights for those who are entitled, but will not bow to the false god of socialism, which requires adherence by the masses, but not by the fat cats socialists themselves.
I will not swear an oath against my Christian brothers like Mr. Bayer here, no matter how misled they be the Devil, but I still pray for their enlightenment and salvation. God save their souls.
Do not be misled by these well-intentioned Jesuits, who have led us down unholy paths in the past.
They mean well, but can’t see the truth of Christ at times like this.

Judith Jordan
4 months 1 week ago

Scott Cooper---

Every time you drive on a road, cross a bridge, use the library, mail a letter, rely upon law enforcement, eat food and take drugs free of harm, drink clean water, call the fire department, rely upon the military and get a polio vaccination you are participating in socialism.

Scott Cooper
4 months 1 week ago

Ms. Jordan, I’m sorry, but you are confusing tax-payer-funded public works and service in a constitutional republic with a largely free market capitalist economy and socialism, which is a pseudo-religion grounded in pseudo-science and enforced by political tyranny.
However, you are not alone—most Americans, especially those who say that they would rather live under socialism than capitalism, cannot define socialism or communism, nor do they realize the devastating effects that these failed systems have on people and their lives.
Remember what socialist leaders say among themselves—socialism is for the people to follow, but not for us.

Advertisement
More: Theater

The latest from america

There’s nothing wrong with setting a particular practice aside for a time and trying something else. Maybe you could pray with the psalms. Or maybe take a book of spiritual reflections and let that invite you into prayer. Or maybe you could just sit quietly in God’s presence.
James Martin, S.J.August 19, 2019
A Mass for young adults on Dec. 7, 2016, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
All youth counselors should be aware of this connection.
Jane Cooley FruehwirthAugust 19, 2019
‘Blinded by the Light’ captures the angst and joy of being a teenager.
Kerry WeberAugust 16, 2019