You know things are dire during Corona Times when you find yourself sobbing over a piece of parchment—aka The Constitution of the United States. What’s next? Rending my garments over the Bill of Rights?
That’s the effect Heidi Schreck’s exuberant, angry, proud and patriotic play, What the Constitution Means to Me, has on a person.
In these fractious, anxious and violent times, Schrek’s play— and the sky-high spirit of her performance and those of the rest of the cast— causes a rebirth of what it means to be an American, crazy as that sounds, and is an illuminating examination of the Constitution as a living, breathing document—flawed, majestic and still kicking.
Filmed by Marielle Heller during the play’s last week of performances at the Helen Hayes Theatre in New York, What the Constitution Means to Me takes you on a fervently brainy joy ride through the Constitution—the good, the bad and the ugliness it has wrought on women and people of color.
Schreck’s enthusiasm for the subject threatens to burst through the screen, and you find yourself carried away on a wave of fervor and facts as she discourses on selected amendments.
In the play, Schreck resurrects her 15-year-old self (ablaze in a yellow blazer), as she raises money for college tuition giving speeches about the U.S. Constitution for the American Legion. A typical American Legion post is recreated for the production, with rows of photos of white men lining the walls.
The Constitution is not her only passion—she also likes kissing boys, Patrick Swayze, magic spells and the like. Her teenage Constitution speech manages to weave magic and casting spells into the narrative, which is a stretch, albeit hilarious.
These moments of meeting her past self gives the show a lightness and potency that is not mere nostalgia, but a reclaiming of power. It gives the audience release from the heavier—but never pedantic—aspects of the play, namely, the violent effects this founding document has had on generations of women and people of color.
At an early part in the show, Schreck brings up the word “penumbra,” which she says is the shadowy space between the lighted stage and the darkness of the audience. ‘Penumbra,’ she notes, is also how Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas described the Ninth Amendment, the most shadowy and misinterpreted part of the Constitution. Justice Antonin Scalia once said he didn’t remember studying it in law school. Yet it is the amendment that allows the establishment of new rights.
Schreck’s play and performance is dedicated to the penumbra, the shadowy place our Founding Fathers trundled many people off to—women, Black people, Native Americans, waves of immigrants. A document where the word “women” does not appear and where women and people of color are unrepresented, unprotected, and unvalued. We exist in this penumbra, seeing the illumination in front of us but unable to step into the light.
Including the women in Schreck’s family. She recounts generations upon generations of violence and trauma, including her great-great grandmother who was ordered from a German mail-order bride catalog for $75 and who died of ‘melancholia’ in her early 30s; as well as her grandmother, who stayed in her second marriage to a wife and child beater who also raped her daughter from her first marriage.
Schreck’s mother grew up in that violent household and her first memory is of her stepfather socking her mother in the face. She and her sister later testified against the stepfather when her mother would not.
In Shreck’s hands, these are not sob stories or tales of victimization. Threaded with astute constitutional theory and research as well as spoken quotes by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (if that doesn’t bring a lump to the throat, nothing will), her stories illustrate how our laws and amendments ignore or exclude women, rendering them worthless and without control of their own bodies and what happens to them.
Heavy going, but the rigor and passion Schreck brings to the Constitution and institutionalized violence never feels crushing—it’s no mystery as to why the play was nominated for a Tony and was a finalist in the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Because what Schreck brings us is hope. Hope that the Constitution will evolve into something that is for all the people. Hope that new amendments will be passed to lighten the penumbra.
Most importantly, hope for future generations. This comes in the form of two New York City high school debaters, Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams, who alternated performances in the live production in a debate with Schreck about whether we should fix the Constitution or tear it up and start over. On Amazon Prime, I saw Ciprian, and her poise, erudition on the Constitution and social issues—not to mention her rip-roaring fervor—gave me happy tears and a feeling that the future is bright.
What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck . Filmed for Amazon Prime Video by Marielle Heller . Featuring: Heidi Schreck, Mike Iveson, with high school students Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams alternating performances in the New York productions. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video