The US Constitution is not often Broadway fare—and for good reason: its place is in the National Archives, not Times Square. How would you make it come alive on stage? Most playwrights, wisely, don’t try. But if you were going to make the attempt, the last thing you might do would be to build a play around a speech given by a high school student to an American Legion club. Yet that’s exactly what Heidi Schreck has done in What the Constitution Means to Me—with remarkable results. By turns uproariously funny, wrenchingly moving, critically challenging, and politically inspiring, this unlikely project is an entertaining and provocative piece of constitutional performance art.
The play, showing at the Helen Hayes Theater, opens on a stage that is a timeless replica of an American Legion hall, with fake wood paneling, utilitarian metal chairs, a lectern, a huge American flag, and walls filled with framed photographs of former Legionnaires—all white men. It could be anywhere in America, but Schreck, who wrote and performs what is largely a one-woman show, tells us that this hall is in Wenatchee, Washington, where she grew up. As a fifteen year old consumed with lust, she explains, Schreck sublimated her adolescent libido by traveling around the Northwest competing in patriotic lecture competitions sponsored by the Legion. She won enough prize money to pay for college—though she hastens to add that this was thirty years ago, and she went to a state college.
The principal strategy of the competitors seems to have been to come up with metaphors for the Constitution. Becky Dobbins, Schreck’s chief rival on the teen lecture circuit, described it as a patchwork quilt. Reprising her own performance, Schreck counters that the Constitution is not a quilt but “a living, warm-blooded, steamy document, hot and sweaty, a crucible, a witches’ cauldron.” You can feel the Legionnaires’ discomfort already.
Schreck seamlessly shifts between her fifteen-year-old self and her forty-five-year-old one, alternately reenacting the teenager’s speech and breaking out of it to muse about her upbringing, adolescent obsessions (which included the actor Patrick Swayze), and ancestors, as well as broader themes of justice, feminism, fear, hope, and, yes, constitutional interpretation. The transitions allow her to be at once rosy-viewed and idealistic about the Constitution’s potential and harshly critical of its significant limitations.
She leavens the entire evening with a tremendous sense of humor, and such a direct and intimate presentation that you really can’t tell whether she is “acting” at all. At one point on the evening I attended, Schreck choked up as she began talking about her grandmother’s abuse at the hands of a partner, saying, “some nights this is harder than others.” I found myself wondering whether this remark could possibly have been written into the script, rather than improvised in the moment. The whole performance feels more like an extended, exceptional performance on “The Moth” than a rehearsed play.
As a fifteen year old, Schreck’s favorite amendment was the Ninth—not at the top of most people’s lists; indeed, not even on most people’s lists. The Ninth is a kind of catch-all, providing that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Schreck likes it because it suggests we have rights not expressly set forth in the document—such as the rights to brush your teeth, or to have an imaginary friend, she points out. Of course, these should be rights, she reasons, “but how long do you want the Constitution to be?”
More significantly for the grown-up Schreck, the Ninth Amendment signals possibility, the hope and expectation that rights not explicitly enumerated in the founding document might nevertheless be recognized as the nation and constitutional law evolve. In particular, it emerges that Schreck has come to admire the Ninth Amendment because it was a foundation, at least initially, for the Supreme Court’s recognition of a woman’s right to control her own reproductive choices. The Court cited the Ninth Amendment as a basis for the right to use contraception and to obtain an abortion.
Schreck covers a wide range of personal, political, and cultural themes in her time on stage, encompassing her relationships with her mother and grandmother, the Court’s interpretation of the word “shall,” the culture of American Legion halls in the 1980s, and the reality of living as a woman in a world in which male violence is an ever-present threat. Her larger theme is justice, especially for women, but ultimately for all. And she poses this central question: Does the Constitution, whether conceived as a quilt or a cauldron, provide a way to achieve a more just world, or does it pose an impediment that principally protects the property and privilege of the white men who drafted and ratified it and their successors?
The play concludes with a high school-style debate on whether to abolish or preserve the Constitution. Schreck is joined on stage by an actual New York high school student (Thursday Williams, a senior at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, in the performance I saw; Rosdely Ciprian, a high school freshman, in others). The student and Schreck draw lots to see who will defend which position. Members of the audience are invited to show their enthusiasm or disagreement with the points made. The two speakers then take turns of not more than two minutes, each offering sharp critiques or impassioned defenses of the document. The critiques feel sharper and funnier than the defenses, which are necessarily more earnest. But both sides are more than ably defended.
At the evening’s close, the audience “chooses,” in a manner of speaking. In fact, though, the play’s strength lies in its ability to remain in a kind of equipoise, confronting head-on the document’s limits, but also celebrating its possibilities and achievements.
At one point, Schreck describes her mother as two people in one: a feminist who championed women’s rights, particularly reproductive freedom, and a more traditional mom, traumatized by the violence in her childhood home, whom Schreck was afraid to tell when she got pregnant in her youth—even as she went off to arrange for an abortion on her own. But it’s not just her mother who has two sides. Schreck, too, embodies her teenage and adult selves. She both loves—and fears—men. And she both reveres and finds deep fault with the Constitution. It is this exploration of the dual character of the things we care about most—our parents, partners, communities, and most profound legal commitments—that is the ultimate subject of What the Constitution Means to Me.
The play concludes with a choice, but in reality, Schreck suggests, the choice is illusory. Just as our parents and ancestors do, the Constitution lives in us. In the same way that we have to recognize and embrace the profound contradictions in our most intimate personal relationships, so, too, must we see and inhabit the Constitution’s internal paradoxes.
As the audience is asked to watch and judge the debate, they are handed pocket-sized Constitutions, in an edition produced by the American Civil Liberties Union, for which I serve as national legal director. This came as a surprise to me. But on reflection, it is fitting. The ACLU, alongside many other civil rights and civil liberties organizations across this country, has long staked its claims on the Constitution, while simultaneously fighting to extend constitutional protections to those originally excluded from its purview and too often disregarded by government officials—women certainly, but also African–American citizens, immigrants, children, dissenters, persons with disabilities, and the criminally accused.
The Constitution is both a very old document written by dead white men and a living commitment, spanning centuries, to strive together to uphold a set of fundamental values: human dignity, equal respect, liberty, autonomy, and democracy. To abolish or replace it would not solve our problems; to embrace it uncritically would only reinforce them. Critical engagement is what is called for—and that is precisely what Heidi Schreck provides.
What the Constitution Means to Me, by Heidi Schreck, is playing at the Helen Hayes Theater, New York City, through July 20.