The Play Challenging Us to See the Rot at the Heart of Our Democracy

The Play Challenging Us to See the Rot at the Heart of Our Democracy

Crisis Intervention

In What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck confronts the promise and perils of the country’s founding document.


When news broke about new laws to effectively ban abortion in Alabama and elsewhere, there were two places I wanted immediately to run. One was obvious—into the streets. The other, less so—into a Broadway theater. Specifically, the Helen Hayes, where, eight times a week until August 24, the playwright and actor Heidi Schreck is performing the most galvanizing work of the season. In What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck expertly weaves an unlikely tapestry of personal stories and legal analysis to consider the promise—and perils—of our country’s foundational document. I saw it three time over the 10 months of its run—it began last fall at the New York Theatre Workshop downtown and reopened on Broadway in March—and each time, it seemed directly to respond to the latest daily assault on our democratic institutions. The show will play the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, in September and begin a national, 22-city tour in January.

Funny, beguiling, and emotionally vivid, the play takes the form, at first, of a high school oratory contest. Wearing a bright yellow blazer and an even sunnier smile, Schreck sets the scene: She tells us she will reenact the speech she delivered in competitions around the country sponsored by the American Legion, when she was an adolescent growing up in Wenatchee, Washington, a small, conservative town that was “an abortion-free zone.” Competitors fared best if they could “draw a personal connection between [their] own life and the document”—exactly what Schreck does in the play, but, of course, with more sophistication and skepticism than she’d had as a teenager.

The zigzagging development of Schreck’s more mature and complex view ends up being one of the play’s tacit narrative through-lines, as we see her shift between the optimistic 15-year-old Heidi, a “zealot” for the Constitution, and the present-day 47-year-old. By triumphing in these contests, Schreck tells us she won enough prize money to pay for college. “Thank you,” she says. “It was 30 years ago and it was a state school, but thank you.”

Designed by Rachel Hauck, the performance space represents an American Legion hall: a wood-paneled room, a podium with the stars and stripes and a feeble potted plant standing nearby. The walls are covered with row upon row of headshots of legionnaires—all men. The setting, Schreck notes, like the rest of the reconstruction we are about to hear, comes from her memories: “It’s not a naturalistic representation,” she says, but resembles more “one of those crime victim drawings.” Thus, in the play’s first few moments—its preamble, really—Schreck lays out the elements for its perfect union of form and function: direct address, displayed enactment, meta-theatrical distancing, contemporary commentary, droll humor, and a disarmingly cheery demeanor that is both absolutely genuine and deployed for maximum comedic and critical effect. And one more important idea is slyly set up in this opening section: In introducing us to the character of her teenage self, Schreck mentions that she was “terrifyingly turned on all the time.” It’s funny, and at the same time the remark clues us in to an unusual theatrical prospect: This show is going to talk about female sexual desire without apology or shame.

In addition to presenting their speeches about the Constitution’s meaning (young Heidi compares it to a “boiling pot in which we are thrown together in sizzling and steamy conflict to find out what it is we truly believe”), the contestants must randomly select an amendment from a can and speak about it extemporaneously. Schreck draws the first section of the 14th—the Reconstruction amendment that promises equal protection under the law to all persons (not just to men, and not just to citizens, as she ardently notes). The rousing assertions in this clause serve as the play’s other structuring principle, as Schreck takes them up one by one. Around them, she twines the history of violence against women in her matrilineage—her great-great-grandmother, imported to the Northwest from Germany as a mail-order bride and dying of “melancholia” at 36; her widowed Grandma Bette, whose second husband physically abused her and her children and sexually assaulted his stepdaughter (who gave birth to two of his children); and her own mother who, at 14, testified against her brutal stepfather when Bette could not bring herself to do so.

Though the play is based in autobiography, it is not quite a one-woman show. Schreck shares the stage with what she calls some “positive male energy”: the actor Mike Iveson, who plays the rules-keeping legionnaire and later, in a beautiful monologue about white masculinity, himself. And, in the last section, she competes against a current, real-life high school debater (Rosdely Ciprian or Thursday Williams, both young women of color, who alternate in the part) arguing the proposition that the Constitution should be abolished. These roles serve as dramaturgical checks and balances against narrowness, indulgence, and a singular view, adding significant dramatic and political texture and tension. Part of Constitution’s genius is that it provokes even as it heartens: By inviting a live audience to confront, together, the limitations of the liberties the Constitution protects, it asks us to participate in a democratic act of historical self-reckoning.

Those limitations are flagrant. Poised effectively to reverse Roe v. Wade, supporting the Muslim ban, twisting the Second Amendment to prevent sensible gun control, granting corporations First Amendment rights that hamper regulation, and crediting religious objections to antidiscrimination law, the Court, as, Adam Serwer has put it, “is headed back to the 19th Century,” and speeding its way there on tracks laid down by the Constitution itself.

The first time I saw the play, just after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, I could feel fury rising among co-spectators as Schreck discussed the abortion she had at age 21 and the importance—literally and psychologically—of her right to choose one. At a performance just after Trump had floated the idea of abolishing birthright citizenship, the lines quoting the 14th Amendment were met with a vigorous round of applause. This spring, on Broadway, as if still excited by the victories of the midterm elections, the audience cheered when Schreck declared, during the debate with Ciprian, “I do not yet have a plan about who will create this new document, but I would like to say for the record, I would love for brilliant young women like my opponent to be involved.” (Ciprian shot back: “Pandering!”)

But Schreck started working on Constitution at least a decade ago—long before the phrase “constitutional crisis” became a regular refrain. She picked up the project from time to time while acting in other plays and occasionally writing some (one based on the medieval wannabe saint, Margery Kempe; another set in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx), and writing for TV shows like Nurse Jackie and I Love Dick. Still, Schreck kept returning to her plan to base a play on her high school oratory experience. She had come to understand that for everybody except for the propertied white men the Constitution initially enfranchised, the 18th-century document, safeguarded under bulletproof glass at the National Archives, has always been in crisis.

Schreck mentions a number of ways it has failed democracy over the centuries: Dred Scott, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the skewed representational arithmetic of the Senate and Electoral College, among others. But she focuses on women, zeroing in on the 2005 case Castle Rock v. Gonzalez, in which a woman sued her Colorado town and its police for failing to apprehend her violent husband, despite a state law asserting that the police “shall” arrest a person who violates a restraining order. Though the woman appealed to the police numerous times, they did nothing; the husband ended up murdering their children. When the case made it to the Supreme Court, justices fixated on the word “shall” in the Colorado statute, and held that the police had no obligation to go after the husband, effectively killing the Colorado legislation and gutting the Violence Against Women Act. Schreck notes that her own grandmother received a better response from her local police—“It was a small town. She was white.” Yet she regards Castle Rock as just one instance over centuries of the legal system telling women they are worthless.

In discussing the case, Schreck plays a bit of the audio of the justice’s discussion, and she does the same, to grim comic effect, when talking about Griswold, the 1965 case that, recognizing a right to privacy in the wonderfully vague Ninth Amendment, granted women the right to use birth control—if they were married and their husbands approved. Observing that Chief Justice William O. Douglas was having an affair with a woman 45 years his junior at the time, Schreck points out his vested interest in the case, one shared by three other justices who were also “cheating on their wives.” The tape of their deliberations is bitterly hilarious: more throat-clearing and coughing than language, revealing the all-male bench’s discomfort with a subject crucial to women’s health and self-sovereignty.

Still, the play holds tight to ideals of equality the Constitution expresses, the gleaming fissures that social movements have been able to force open, allowing justice to gush forth. Or at least trickle. If the Constitution has long supplied the scaffolding for shoring up a misogynistic (and racist) system, it also provides a potential structure for climbing out of it—voting rights, abortion access, desegregation—though this framework has always been vulnerable. As Schreck observes during the debate toward the end of the play, reproductive rights have been rolled back some 200 times in the last two decades.

Constitution is not just rhetorically rigorous; it’s formally inventive: It oscillates between narrative and framing commentary like Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox and combines intimate stories with theoretical consideration like Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts. It is a far cry from the 19th-century melodramatic machinery of a big-cast family play like Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, which, disappointingly, won this year’s Tony for best play over Constitution.

Constitution could never have sprung from a commercial Broadway development process that aims at an audience of tourists, both foreign (which means placing spectacle over language-driven drama and American-specific concerns) and domestic (which means emotional dramas about families facing trying circumstances and/or casting celebrities). And yet it proved wrong those Broadway prognosticators who, like pundits discussing potential presidential candidates, insist that centering white men is the only way to be viable: Constitution recouped its $2.5 million capitalization. The play found its way to midtown the only way it possibly could have: after years of commissions, support, workshops, and performance opportunities from downtown and Brooklyn-based experimental companies like the Foundry Theatre, Dixon Place, PS122, True Love Productions, and Clubbed Thumb, before receiving the full production at New York Theatre Workshop this past fall.

But there’s an important way the show, nimbly directed by Oliver Butler, does feel like Broadway—if, that is, you associate Broadway’s greatest pleasures with a certain fizz of engagement: the thrilling combustion of high production values and performers’ virtuosity with an audience’s sense of special connection to the material and the palpable feeling that the strangers around you are sharing the excitement. Schreck makes all that happen without any razzle-dazzle, and about halfway through the play she even wishes to leave the trappings of the American Legion hall behind:

I’d really like for all of this to disappear now. This contest. All of this. I wish we could have one of those spectacular set changes now. Like those plays with incredible set changes. But it’s not that kind of show. So maybe we could all just imagine that we’re somewhere else. Maybe we could imagine something else.

Downtown, those lines played, in part, as a witty comment about shoebox spaces with shoestring budgets. On West 44th Street, they more vividly refer to the call the show makes to spectators’ own creative powers: the demand that we actively fill in what’s not simply handed over to us, that we perceive one thing and make it something else.

What’s more, Schreck draws attention to this make-believe aspect of theater to bring about one of the play’s most radical gestures: knocking men from the place of the presumed universal by making everyone else the subject of address. At the end of the brief preamble, as Schreck prepares to show us her teenage speech, she asks us to pretend to be the audience there: “I would love it if you would be the men for me,” she says. “You are all the men. Thank you.”

The request sounds simple, even, deceptively, cute. But something complex and stirring is also going on: In casting us as men, Schreck is hailing us as anyone but. And as the play goes on, she narrates experiences—and reactions—that are likely familiar to other women (certainly to me) but have seldom been so frankly and unrepentantly spoken about from a stage.

At one point, for instance, Schreck talks about a guy who drove her home from a rehearsal during college, when she was 17, and, as he pulled over near her dorm, way on the outskirts of campus, “suddenly he took off my pants.” She goes through with the sex out of a sense of politeness or obligation or fear—that swirl of ingrained misogyny that can work on all women, regardless of background. “I’m 99 percent sure he would not have hurt me, so why did I feel my life was in danger?” she asks, naming a dread that women can’t help but carry around with them.

Indeed, in another moment, she cites some horrifying statistics: “More American women have been killed by violent male partners in the last century than Americans have been killed in wars” and “that is only the number of women who have been killed by the men who supposedly love them.” She goes on: “That’s such a staggering figure that I just kind of have to forget it to get through the day. Except, I think the knowledge of it is always there. Even if you don’t know the statistics, I think you can feel the truth of it underneath everything. Humming. Right?” That “right”—and it’s one of many throughout the play—seeks affirmation in a way that assumes her audience knows just what she’s talking about. And given that some two-thirds of Broadway audiences are women (and 75 percent of audiences, white), there’s a good chance we do.

More subtly, she reflects back to us the way, as she puts it, “A lot of us are forced to be two people in this culture.” The line refers to her grandmother’s “covert resistance”—her seemingly passive response to her husband’s violence even as she actively took care of her kids and their futures. But Schreck embodies a duality, too, one that goes beyond showing us teenage and adult versions of herself. She displays an opposition between, on one hand, her smarts, claimed agency, and forthrightness, and on the other, her eager-to-please, nonthreatening ebullience, between her sharpness and her simultaneous efforts to file it down lest it injure someone’s (male) ego.

In the script, an astonishing stage direction at one point instructs her to release “any remnants of the buoyant, performative girlishness that is one of her lifelong coping mechanisms.” But you don’t need to know about this script note to see it happen before your eyes on stage. In a model of Brechtian acting, Schreck plays a part and comments on its social construction at the same time.

Schreck’s wholehearted bond with the audience sends a live charge through the house, kind of like the feeling in a queer bar, or maybe what the first Ashkenazi Jewish Americans seeing Fiddler on the Roof experienced when they saw a version of their heritage proudly presented in popular culture for the first time. It’s palpable, rousing, uplifting—and the reason I yearned to be in that space again when Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed the law making it a felony to perform an abortion (except in cases that would save a woman’s life).

So is Constitution preaching to the converted? Not entirely—and besides, what’s so bad about that? The converted always need inspiration and motivation for the long haul, especially when under attack. But Schreck is challenging us, too, to face the failure of American democracy and to recognize that the rot begins at its core.

In an early piece of performance art—in 1854—the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison famously declared the slavery-enabling Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell” and then pulled out a copy and set it aflame. Schreck doesn’t go that far, but about an hour into her 100-minute play, she gives the stage over to the question of whether America’s most sacred founding document should be trashed. Shouldn’t we replace the 231-year-old government blueprint, which is based in negative rights—enumerating what the state cannot do to its citizens—with one that asserts the positive rights the state must help guarantee, like education and health care?

It’s here that Ciprian or Williams comes out to battle Schreck in a witty and sprightly parliamentary-style debate. They flip a coin to determine which of them will argue to keep the Constitution, which to scrap it and start over. At the end, they appoint a member of the audience to represent all assembled and declare the winner. All three times I saw the play, the adjudicator was a middle-aged white woman—one a New Yorker, two from the Midwest—who voted to hang onto the Constitution. I suspect they were persuaded by a key point made in the debate (no matter which woman is arguing that proposition—I saw Schreck argue “keep” twice): that those currently in power would likely control the process of making a new governing document and could very well come up with one that’s even worse than what we have now. As deeply flawed as the founding fathers were, the reasoning seems to go, could they have been more craven and unprincipled than Mitch McConnell?

Whether that’s the only way we might hit the “refresh” button on our democracy the debaters don’t take the time to discuss, but I’d love to hear them argue the case for a constituent assembly, a popularly elected convention of Americans hashing out our national needs and values. I like to think of Schreck’s play as a partial rehearsal for such a process.

The play doesn’t quite end with the verdict on the debate. There’s a brief, poignant coda. Schreck and her young interlocutor sit on the lip of the stage in dim light, the set behind them now shrouded in darkness: Without a spectacular set-change, the American Legion hall has finally disappeared and two debaters speak quietly beyond the glare of those old male gazes. They ask each other questions culled from suggestions left by the previous night’s audience. What’s your favorite TV show? Your favorite food? The quality you most cherish in a friend? The simple stuff of lives, at least for the moment, unburdened by injustice. The one constant is the last question: Schreck asks the teenager what she envisions for herself some number of years hence, and the show ends almost wistfully, with a young black woman imagining herself—and our country—into the future.

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