REVIEW: Now on Broadway, “What the Constitution Means to Me” is a stirring act of resistance
The grievous aftermath of the 2016 presidential election served as grist for many Americans to examine their relationship to their own citizenship, and question the very foundations of our society. Something, it seemed, broke. In response, some withdrew in despair. Others tweeted and marched.
Heidi Schreck wrote a play.
20 years since first having the idea, and a decade since debuting a ten minute version, the full-length piece premiered at Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival in 2017, then enjoyed a critically acclaimed, sold out run at New York Theatre Workshop and the Greenwich House Theater downtown last fall (read my review).
Now, her mostly one woman show, “What the Constitution Means to Me”, an improbable vehicle for a commercial mounting, has opened on Broadway for an advertised 12 week run extended by an additional six weeks on opening night. And for a good reason.
Part civics lesson and part memoir, “What the Constitution Means to Me” is easily the most important play on Broadway this season, or in any season. To see it is to participate in an act of resistance, of reclaiming hope for the future by doing the hard work of grappling with the past.
To see it is to change, and become an agent of change.
I grant it is difficult to measure whether a play can actually change the world, and it is easy to feel cynical about the prospect that one ever could. But if any piece of theatre in 2019 has the power to make change, it is “What the Constitution Means to Me”.
As a teenager, a plucky Ms. Schreck traveled from her hometown of Wenatchee, Washington—a conservative, “abortion free zone”—to give speeches about the United States Constitution for prize money at American Legion-run competitions across the country.
Her standard stump speech, “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution”—the original copy of which has since been discarded by her mother—combined her adolescent love for witches, theatre, and Patrick Swayze, and successfully earned enough winnings to pay for her entire college education (a fact she quickly qualifies by admitting it was a state school, 30 years ago).
In the play, Ms. Schreck recounts that formative experience of wrestling with the constitution as a sprightly 15 year-old-girl graced with acne and braces speaking in smoke-filled halls, mostly full of old men, through the personal lens of her adult self, the women in her family—both present and past—and the bitterly divided nation it serves.
What begins as a humorous recreation of the contest, with Mike Iveson serving as a timekeeper and source of “positive male energy” modeled after real-life Wenatchee legionnaire Mel Yonkin, quickly transforms into something else altogether. Ms. Schreck comments on her teenage presentation then hijacks it entirely, removing her yellow blazer, and talking to us as her present-day self, recounting sexual assault she bore in college, an abortion she had in her twenties, and the painful history of generations of women in her family who were abused at the hands of men.
She poignantly reminds us of the sobering facts that three women are killed in America every day due to domestic partner violence, one out of every three women will be sexually assaulted, and one out of every four raped—asking the question that lies at the heart of the play: what does it mean that the [constitution] will not protect [women] from the violence of men? A question that painfully has no present answer.
Ms. Schreck’s performance is a brave and magnificent public act of personal storytelling that is so artfully crafted and masterfully delivered that it feels wholly extemporaneous, as if each performance were summoned from whole cloth. That’s a testament to her incisive writing and virtuosic acting, and director Oliver Butler’s razor-sharp guidance.
It is also something larger and more earth shattering: the power of a woman telling her truth, claiming her space in a world dominated by men, and refusing to let centuries of inherited trauma and abuse continue to be passed on.
In short: a woman changing the world through the power of theatre.
The prompt of that American Legion competition stressed that making a personal connection between yourself and the constitution was essential for success. While 15-year-old Heidi could not speak publicly about the physical abuse her grandma endured, nor the death of her great-great grandma Theressa at age 36 from “melancholia”, as an “adult woman” in her “early late 40s” she can and does, finally, truly fulfilling that prompt in a way those dens of World War II veterans could never have expected.
In the process, she engages her audiences in an act of profound social consciousness expanding, community building, and democratic participation. The penultimate sequence is a parliamentary-style debate between Ms. Schreck and New York City high school students Rosdely Ciprian or Thursday Williams (at alternating performances) over the question: should we abolish the United States Constitution?
The participation of these two young women of color is a nod to Ms. Schreck’s belief in the future they represent—and her asking of us to believe alongside her, a task made easy by the shining intelligence and sparkling dispositions both possess (over three performances, I have seen both young women debate, and they are fierce). The winner of the debate is decided by an audience member picked at random—pocket constitutions passed out as guides and takeaway tokens.
The final moments of the play are a study in modeling behavior once common and now so desperately missing in our society: two people of different backgrounds and life experiences just talking in good faith, and asking each other questions—bridging the space between us, the penumbras of our very existence.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” is a play that is not only good for the theatre, and for Broadway in particular—expanding our notion of what a “Broadway play” can be and do—it is also good for our democracy, the thing that, barring all else, ought to bind us together as Americans.
While speaking about the lesser-known and rarely invoked 9th Amendment, which reserves all unenumerated rights to the people, Ms. Schreck says it acknowledges an abiding belief among the Founders that “who we are now may not be who we will become”, suggesting that the document itself leaves room for the nation it serves to evolve. That is, of course, the history of our country, however fraught with violence and injustice.
Rarely has a moment met a work of theatre more synchronistically than this play in this moment. When I first saw it downtown last fall, it was the day that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance the nomination of then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the full Senate—an utterly gutting moment that threatened to upend precious rights and opportunities for women, immigrants, workers, LGBTQ people, people of color, and other marginalized groups; a fear fully realized days after.
Revisiting “What the Constitution Means to Me” a mere five months later, we have moved steadily forward, just like, as Ms. Schreck’s mother suggests, “a woman walking along a beach with a dog”. The dog darts back and forth, giving the perception of no progress, yet the woman keeps going forward. Ms. Schreck’s performance is as deep and resonant, if even sharper, than it was downtown, and the same text shines in ways anew, as I suspect it will continue to do as events unfold, history is made, and yes, we move steadily forward yet more.
At the performance I attended Saturday afternoon at the Helen Hayes Theatre (one of two Broadway theatres named for women), Ms. Schreck argued in the debate that we the people should not abolish the constitution but rather, as Abraham Lincoln once suggested, “overthrow the men who abuse it”.
Since she first started performing the play in the aftermath of the first woman nominee for president—battle-scarred and resilient—losing the electoral college to a most odious man despite winning the popular vote, a record number of women have been elected to United States Congress, and five women are running for president. The men who’ve abused our constitution are officially on notice.
Heidi Schreck wrote a play and captured a moment. And I suspect it will be long remembered as among the most important and impactful of our era.
Bottom Line: To see Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” is to participate in an act of resistance, of reclaiming hope for the future by doing the hard work of grappling with the past. Part civics lesson, part memoir, Schreck recounts her formative experience of wrestling with the constitution’s meaning as a teenager through the lens of her adult self, the women in her family, and the bitterly divided nation it serves. It is the most important play of this or any season—an act of profound social consciousness expanding, community building, and democratic participation—and a must-see.
Note: This review uses portions of a prior review.
“What the Constitution Means to Me”
Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: March 31, 2019
Final Performance: August 24, 2019