A CurtainUp Streaming Feature
What the Constitution Means to Me| — a more timely than ever theatrical history lesson
Fifteen-year-old Heidi Schreck hoped that the prize money won for participating in American Legion hall debates intended to foster a better understanding of the Constitution would fatten her college fund. It paid for all of it. But Schreck's involvement with that historic document didn't end with those debates.
Rosdely Ciprian, Heidi Schreck, Thursday Williams, Mike Iveson,
After years of establishing herself as a writer and actress, she found herself thinking about those debates again and it was the play she crafted from her debate experience that has become as much of a must-see political show as Hamilton. Like that juggernaut, it starred its author. But What the Constitution Means to Me was not a big cast musical, but a finely tuned dramatization of that debate experience. Thus, the set is — you guessed it — a replica of a typical American Legion hall.
Since Schreck's script did provide for an actor to play a Legionnaire who serves as the debate moderator and also for a real high school debater to come aboard in the latter part of the 90 minutes, this is best categorized as an almost solo play. (The fiercely passionate Rosdely Ciprian appears in the filmed version, but Thursday Wllliams, her alternate during the Broadway run, has been given her due in the curtain call picture above).
Unlike Hamilton, which premiered in the Public Theater's largest space with immediate expectations of a Broadway transfer and major awards, Schreck's play, though well received immediately, opened in a small downtown theater and ambitions. However, thanks to the way Schreck managed to turn her teen debate experience into a play that worked both as an engaging memoir and powerful political play about issues vital to all Americans What the Constitution Means to Me became a true little engine that could. For Constitution. . . that meant exceeding the wildest hopes of its author and producers by becoming a huge hit, first in an extended run downtown, and ultimately at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theater. That success and Pulitzer and Tony nominations were already seeding the first of what was sure to be many regional productions before that Broadway run's end.
Of course, the pandemic put live productions of Constitution. . . on an indefinite hold. One of its final Broadway performances was astutely filmed and is now available to its largest ever audiences courtesy of streaming giant, Amazon Prime. The fact that it's been rolled out at Amazon as the latest appointment to the U.S. Supreme court is ratcheting up the always debatable interpretations of the document that's the linchpin of our democracy once again clarifies why this uniquely original small play has beat out Shakespeare and other great playwrights in being timely.
As history tends to repeat itself, directors and actors find new ways to show their themes' relevancy to the current zeitgeist. But current events have been right in step with Schreck's sassy little mashup of memoir and political drama, so that it has a unique ripped from the headlines feeling no matter when or where we're watchimg it. Thus, it was intensely of the moment when the Me-Too movement was at its most active. It again seemed to be written to tie in with the Kavanaugh hearings. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death and the push to replace her with a more conservative voice makes it more urgently of the moment than ever.
While Deirdre Donovan reviewed Constitution. . . for CurtainUp when it premiered downtown, her comments applied to the Broadway production, the superbly filmed version of which is now at Amaxon. The big difference between seeing it on your screen than live is again how the world we live in affects our response. I'm therefore posting our original review below. Oh, and you also won't get a copy of that pocket- sized copy of the Constitution. But there are plenty available to download on line..
When I was 15 years old I traveled the country giving speeches about the Constitution at American Legion halls for prize money. This was a scheme invented by my mom, who was a debate coach, to help me pay for college.— Heidi Schreck
Of all the shows opening this season, Heidi Schreck's What the Constitution Means to Me best captures the mood of the moment in our country. Written and performed by Schreck, it is a trenchant autobiographical piece that resurrects the days that she toured the country as a 15 year-old high school debater, making speeches on the United States Constitution and earning award money for her college education.
Schreck has been developing the piece for a decade now, and it arrives at the New York Theatre Workshop like that proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove. By curious happenstance, it opened on October 1st during the Senate vote on the nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice. Although Schreck didn't say his name aloud from the stage, the event seemed to act like an invisible undertow in her monologue.
Veteran-actor Mike Iverson accompanies Schreck as an to go toe-to-toe with Schreck in a live parliamentary debate on whether the Constitution should be jettisoned —and one can see from the moment she confidently walks on stage that she's in charge, thank you.
The set by Rachel Hauck is a life-sized diorama of an American Legion Hall, with the essential accoutrements of a podium, flags, and myriad portraits of Legionnaires. It faithfully conjures up the mood and atmosphere of when Schreck lived in Wenatchee, Washington and wore the mantle of high school debater par excellence.
Whereas Hauck's set holds a mirror up to nature, Schreck uses another trick to summon up her high school debating days. In her introduction, she invites the audience to imagine themselves to be those Legionnaires (think all white males) who once sat in the auditorium and judged her speeches. Thus everybody in the theater gets involved in the proceedings. What's more, one audience member will be asked at the finale to judge the fate of our Constitution. It makes for a cliffhanging finale that has all weighing on the wits of one person selected randomly from the audience.
It's difficult to fit this piece into a neat and tidy genre. But, as directed by Oliver Butler, and schizophrenically performed by Schreck as her 15 year-old and present-day self, it's a real eye-opener to what the Constitution is, and how it has evolved from the time our Founding Fathers wrote and presented it in 1787 as the backbone of our justice system.
It's evident that Schreck is well steeped in the document and knows its articles and amendments like the back of her right hand. But be prepared to get the theatergoer's equivalent of whiplash from following her as she hopscotches across decades, switching personae from young to present-day Heidi in a nanosecond.
The play's galloping pace that sometimes makes it feel like a runaway horse on stage, does slow down enough to allow you to reconsider some pivotal moments in American history when a specific amendment facilitated a major change in the social fabric of our country. Schreck best illustrates this when she is in her 15 year-old debater persona and is asked to speak extemporaneously—and from a personal perspective—on the Fourteenth Amendment. She breathlessly dives into her argument, and notes how the Fourteenth Amendment fueled the Civil Rights Movement with a lot of legwork from notables like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Height, Rosa Parks, and Bayard Rustin.
No, Schreck isn't soft-pedaling the Fourteenth Amendment here, for in the next beat she points out that it is in this same amendment that she first discovered the word "male" introduced in a clause to clarify the gender of those eligible to vote in 18th century America. She
adds that her father, who was helping her with her speech, took some of the sting out of that passage by interpreting the Constitution as a brilliant but incomplete document. He cooked up the term "penalty box," which he said was the reason that females had to wait before gaining voting parity with males.
The 15-year-old Schreck swallowed her father's bait. But looking back on her father's interpretation of the gender-divide in the Constitution prompts her to state that women surely had to wait a long, long time for the Nineteenth Amendment to arrive and undo that "penalty box."
Schreck gathers more steam as she plunges into some of the Supreme Court decisions that have put a permanent blot on American history. She refers to the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case as the most "disgusting Supreme Court decision" ever to pass through the hallowed halls of the institution. Though the slave famously sued for his freedom in 1857 and lost his case in a 7-2 vote,
Schreck soberly notes that Scott's brave spirit sowed the seeds for later victories — and in fact, opened the door to Lincoln's signing the Emancipation Proclamation.
If delving into the annals of American history provided the young Heidi ample material for her debate speeches, the present-day Heidi prefers to tap into the roots of her family tree to point out close-to-home instances of social injustice. She confesses that this is something that she shied away from as a 15 year-old debater but has no qualms about now, preferring to share the discomfiting stories about female relatives who were victims of either rape, domestic violence, or severe depression.
Perhaps the most poignant story is about her great-great grandma Theressa Birgitta Katerina Hildegard Finkas who her great-great grandpa ordered from a catalogue for $75. Schreck now wonders if Theressa took a leap of faith when she left her native Germany to get married, or if she was pressured by family members to pack up and go to America? Schreck doesn't pretend to know the answer to this, but we do learn that Theressa died of melancholia at age 36 in a state mental hospital and never became a citizen. Moreover, Schreck suspects that Theressa may well be the reason that all the women on the maternal side of her family tend to cry in the same melodramatic way. Schreck refers to it as "Greek tragedy crying" and demonstrates this crying phenomenon.
While I found the piece entertaining and instructive throughout,
The constant shifting between the younger and older Heidi, the extremely personal and the broader political makes for a challenging but uniquely compelling exploration of this vital document. And, oh yes, you'll go home with a pocket Constitution to thumb through on your own.
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