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.