Michelena Hallie’s Theater Review of ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’

A guest reviewer on this site, Michelena Hallie saw the inimitable Heidi Schreck in a production that began Off Broadway and landed on Broadway because of the show’s great currency during this time when our government is under siege from an Executive Branch that would vitiate our rule of law codified in the Constitution. Citizens and tourists alike have flocked to the show and by word of mouth have spread its popularity and forward momentum. Here is Michelena Hallie’s review.

Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Meanst o Me,Oliver Butler, Helen Hayes Theater
Heidi Schreck (writer, performer) in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me,’ directed by Oliver Butler (Joan Marcus)

‘WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME’:  A Personal Look at History

by Michelena Hallie

What the Constitution Means to Me is in part a civics lesson on the strengths and weaknesses of this bedrock document of our democracy.  It is also in part a funny and poignant overview of the history of the women in Heidi Schreck’s family and their strength and oppression. And it is in part a searing critique of the Constitution’s failure to protect women and other oppressed groups over the course of this country’s history. But it is the sum of all these parts that gives the play its true power. By making history personal, Heidi Schreck – who wrote and stars in the production – brings history to life and forces us to truly analyze it with all its flaws and wonders.

Schreck begins the production with some funny and poignant background. She explains that when she was fifteen, her mother urged her to compete in American Legion contests on who could most ardently defend the Constitution. It quickly became her passion, and ultimately paid for college. While her opponents in Wenatchee, Washington provided the standard tropes such as “the Constitution is a patchwork quilt,” Schreck’s presentations were much more impassioned. On the other hand, she declaimed, “The Constitution is a crucible!” It is, “A fiery cauldron of energy and messy unpredictability!”

Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Meanst o Me,Oliver Butler, Helen Hayes Theater
Heidi Schreck, ‘What the Constitution Means to Me,’Oliver Butler, Helen Hayes Theater (Joan Marcus)

The dichotomy within the Constitution is introduced right away. In the guise of a reenactment of her youthful debates, Schreck launches in to a description of the Supreme Court Dredd Scott decision – most probably the worst decision to come out of the Court. Scott was an enslaved black man whose “owners” took him from the slave-holding state of Missouri to the Missouri Territory which had been designated free.  There he married Harriett Robinson.  Robinson and  Scott were brought back to Missouri by Scott’s “owner” and  Scott sued for his emancipation arguing that he was a free man in Missouri Territory and that freedom should be recognized. The Supreme Court, however, denied him his day in court. Persons of African descent, the Court ruled, were not “citizens” under the Constitution and therefore had no right to sue.  Moreover, even though not necessary since they threw out the case on this initial ground, the Court also ruled that emancipating Scott would deprive his “owners” of their property in violation of the due process clause of the Constitution. It was a truly dark point in time for our Constitution and our country.

Schreck then pivots to the Ninth Amendment of the Constitution which provides: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” People – not just citizens – are protected under the Ninth Amendment (despite the ruling in Dred Scott). And therein lies the paradox that Schreck focuses on throughout the play. Indeed, in the production I saw, she brought it even closer to home. She pointedly referred to the relevance of the protection of “people,” not just citizens, in this week’s news. Clearly in this performance she was referring to the immigration/asylum tragedy unfolding throughout the county, and most probably the president’s racist tweets demanding that four members of congress (all of whom are U.S. citizens and 3 of whom were born here) go back to the countries from which they came. I dare say she updates this reference each evening.

Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me, Oliver Butler, Helen Hayes Theater
Heidi Schreck, ‘What the Constitution Means to Me, directed by Oliver Butler (Joan Marcus)

But the story quickly gets personal, as Schreck uses her family history to bring home the oppression suffered during the history of our country. Schreck tells us of her grandmother’s and mother’s abuse at the hands of the men in their lives. Her grandmother died of melancholia at 36. Her mother testified about the abuse of her stepfather only to have her own mother turn on her and deny the claims out of fear of more abuse. She delineates the history of the white men who oversaw and controlled her mother’s and grandmother’s lives. And she underscores that the white men on a larger scale oversaw and controlled the interpretation and implementation of the Constitution.

Then Schreck plays the audio from the oral argument in the Supreme Court review in 1965 of Connecticut’s ban on contraception. It is remarkable!  Though the Court ultimately ruled in Griswold v Connecticut that the ban violated the right of privacy, the unease of the all-male Court in discussing contraception was palpable with lots of throat clearing. Their discomfort was particularly amusing when Schreck explained that four of those men were, in all probability, cheating on their wives and trying to protect their mistresses’ right to have an abortion, if necessary.

Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me, Oliver Butler
Heidi Schreck, ‘What the Constitution Means to Me,’ directed by Oliver Butler (Joan Marcus)

Perhaps the flaw in the Constitution, Schreck suggests, is that it is a negative rights document. It enumerates what a “person” has the right to avoid, but is deficient on enumerating what persons have an affirmative right to expect. To bring this deficiency home she ends the show with a debate with an ardent 14-year-old debater on whether the Constitution should be abolished. After all it was written by dead white men and our needs and times have changed. Perhaps it is time to scrap it altogether and start again with a document that speaks to our current issues!

While the debate is clearly contrived, it does entertainingly bring home the magic of the document. Would we then have to abolish and rewrite the document each time the mores of society change? How would we decide when that time has come? How would we assure that the new document sufficiently meets our updated needs? Who would decide? How would we protect the basic “inalienable” rights that have been borne out of this flawed document? Even with its deficiencies, even with its poor execution over the years, even with its inability to protect the oppressed, the Constitution does root us in our deep faith in democracy.

Rosdely Ciprian,Heidi Schreck,Thursday Williams, Mike Iveson, What the Constitution Means to Me, Helen Hayes Theater
(L to R): Rosdely Ciprian, Heidi Schreck,Thursday Williams, Mike Iveson in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’, Helen Hayes Theater (Joan Marcus)

The production may not be theater in the classic sense. As she herself concedes half way through the show, Schreck does digress into the personal, sometimes at the expense of the arc of the play. And the monologue by the American Legion officer who throws off his uniform and delivers a heartfelt description of the discrimination he has suffered as a gay man is touching but a bit sanctimonious. However, the play does make us think. It forces us to reflect about the spotty history of this country; the evolving definition of democracy; the prejudice innate in the birth of our country that continues today. And it encourages us to consider the ideals – however flawed – on which our country was founded. In some ways the production is as much an interesting and educational lecture as a play. But when art can educate as well as entertain, it is a treasure.

This Obie Award and New York Drama Critics’ Circle winner traveled from San Francisco in May 2018 to Off Broadway in September 2018. Its initial limited Broadway run was extended after critical acclaim. It will start its national tour in the Fall.  Its producers have also teamed up with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (https://www.gilderlehrman.org/) to provide free tickets for middle and high school students for an invaluable lesson in history and great theater. It is precisely the type of production that should get this broad audience. Particularly in this troubled time, grounding our thoughts in our country’s complex history will help us deal with our present. And our future.

What the Constitution Means to Me is playing at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44 Street, New York, New York 10036 through August 24, 2019.  It runs 100 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.







Michelena Hallie’s Theater Review of William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Danielle Brooks, Olivia Washington, Erik Laray Harvey, Chuck Cooper, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Margaret OdetteWilliam Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater
(L to R): Danielle Brooks, Olivia Washington, Erik Laray Harvey, Chuck Cooper, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Margaret Odette, William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater (Joan Marcus)

Michelena Hallie and I saw Kenny Leon’s production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the first offering of the 2019 season of Shakespeare in The Park. We attended on June 18, Tuesday evening during a light rain that the actors marshaled through with brio and professionalism. As a guest reviewer on this site, she weighs in on the production.

Much Ado About Nothing: A Glorious Antidote for Our Troubled Times

by Michelena Hallie

The divisive times we live in have inspired artists to articulate our anxieties, fears and anger, in an attempt to help us focus those emotions in a productive way.  Or at least let us know we are not alone in our pain.  Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing, currently running at the Delacorte Theater, is a stunning example of just such art.  Placing the immortal text of Shakespeare in the volatile 2020 election year marries the battles, treachery, love and community of this classic with the turbulence of our times.

Leon’s legendary directorial portfolio is brought to full effect in the production.  Placing the play in an African American suburb of Atlanta, Georgia in the Spring before the 2020 election explodes the themes of the play into the present. And the production wastes no time introducing its themes. A “Stacey Abrams 2020” sign is prominently displayed on the stately house which forms the backdrop of the play. Our heroine Beatrice masterfully performed by Danielle Brooks (Orange Is The New Black, The Color Purple), appears on the balcony above the sign and, together with friends, opens the play with an inspiring mix of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (“Mother, mother There’s too many of you crying. Brother, Brother, Brother There’s far too many of you dying”) and “America the Beautiful” (“O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain”). Fast forward to the group of men returning from a battle carrying signs such as “Hate is not a Family Value” and “Restore Democracy Now.” The specifics of the battle are not explained, but the tie to the presidential election and Black Lives Matter is unmistakable. This is not our grandparents’ Shakespeare.

The play then deftly switches from the divisive political backdrop to the more personal. We meet the starry-eyed lovers, Hero and Claudio, and the sharp tongued “adversaries” Beatrice and Benedick, as they dramatically enact their relationships.

Claudio, a young Lord who was one of the heroes in the reported battle, is smitten with Hero, the daughter of Leonato, the patriarch of the household.  Leonato readily agrees to Claudio’s and Hero’s marriage and the wedding date is set.  However, the evil Don John attempts to destroy the happy event by suggesting to Claudio that his beloved Hero is unfaithful, and offering to provide proof of her infidelity. Instead of defending his betrothed, Claudio responds that if he sees anything that would suggest he should not marry Hero, he will shame her at their upcoming wedding ceremony. And when Don John takes Claudio to the location where he has staged the false tryst, Claudio falls for the staging, and follows through with his threat. Without giving Hero an opportunity to defend herself, Claudio condemns her in front of the people gathered to celebrate their wedding.  And Hero’s father joins the hasty condemnation.  Only Beatrice, Benedick and the Friar question the accusation.  The wedding is canceled and Hero is despondent and disgraced.

And then there’s Beatrice and Benedick – the sharp tongued would be lovers who hide their attraction for each other by throwing insults. Through machinations of their friends and family who want them to be happily married despite their protestations, Beatrice and Benedick fall in love. Brooks’ explosive performance and Grantham Coleman’s (“Buzzer,” “As You Like It”) energetic, funny and endearing turn as Benedick, depict the relationship as one of strength between equals. The couple are clearly not only very attracted to each other, but respect each other as peers. A stark contrast from Claudio’s treatment of Hero.  In a particularly dramatic scene, Beatrice asks Benedick to avenge her dear cousin Hero’s mistreatment by killing his friend Claudio. The monologue Beatrice delivers on her inability to act because she is a woman is searing.

Danielle Brooks, Grantham Coleman, William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park
(L to R): Danielle Brooks, Grantham Coleman in William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park (Joan Marcus)

During these battles of the sexes and good and evil, it is friendship that keeps the communal bonds together. Beatrice never doubts her cousin Hero’s innocence.  And through her vociferous defense she highlights the sexism that led Claudio to doubt his betrothed and Leonato to doubt his own daughter. What a powerful representation of the need for and power in the #MeToo movement. And through her pain and betrayal by her lover and her father, Hero too finds her own inner strength in a dramatic turn when Claudio realizes the falsity of his accusations and the innocence of Hero. Leon is able to inject Shakespeare’s story with staging of today’s hot topics, and bring vibrancy to both. And nowhere is that more dramatically exhibited than in the last scene of this masterful production. It may be a Shakespearean comedy, but the final scene pointedly returns us to the tumultuous times in which we live. A reminder that no matter how powerful our community is, we cannot live in a vacuum separate from broader society.

The production’s staging and modern day unspoken elements (Shakespeare may have been bawdy but even he would blush if he saw some of the moves between Beatrice and Benedick) are indeed masterful. But what also contributes to this amazing production is truly extraordinary acting. Brooks’ energy, passion, humor – and extraordinary voice – have molded Beatrice in to a modern day heroine. Coleman’s hyper, confused but lovable Benedick transforms the character from an arrogant and delusional oddity so often depicted in productions of the play to an endearing protagonist. And then there is Chuck Cooper (“The Life”) as Leonato, the warm patriarch who is temporarily blinded with a sexist assumption that his daughter Hero is impure, but is swiftly persuaded to test that assumption, clearly wanting to believe his beloved daughter is innocent.

Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare in the Park, William Shakespeare, Kenny Leon Danielle Brooks, Margaret Odette, Chuck Cooper, Granthan Coleman, Jeremie Harris, Billy Eugene Jones
The ensemble in William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ directed by Kenny Leon, Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater (Joan Marcus)

Jason Michael Webb’s music and Camille A Brown’s choreography add to the drama of the production. At weddings, at celebrations, at memorials, the music and dancing not only introduce another contemporary element to the story, but move us to a higher emotional level. The vibrant music, the beautiful voices and the energetic dances leave the audience dancing and applauding in their seats.

The production is a masterful combination of the timeless words of Shakespeare and the powerful political, sexual and artistic forces of our times.  It is truly the best of great art – it entertains and educates us.  It is Shakespeare at his timeless  best.

Much Ado About Nothing  is 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.  It runs through June 23, 2019 at the Delacorte Theater, 81 Central Park West. For tickets and the lottery check the website by CLICKING HERE.