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.
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.