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‘How to Defend Yourself’ at New York Theatre Workshop

(L to R): Ariana Mahallati, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Talia Ryder, Gabriela Ortega, Amaya Braganza in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Ariana Mahallati, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Talia Ryder, Gabriela Ortega, Amaya Braganza in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In this decade of sexual extremes on a continuum from paranoia, political correctness, libertine licentiousness, the billion dollar pornography industry and casual permissiveness, one in four women is violated, sexually assaulted or physically/emotionally abused. As a strategic defense #metoo has been appropriately employed culturally, but it also has been wrongfully magnified as a double-edged sword of vengeance. In Liliana Padilla’s play How to Defend Yourself currently at New York Theatre Workshop, following a successful 2020 run at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, Padilla confronts important issues about personal safety (emotional and physical). Incisively co-directed by the exceptional Rachel Chavkin, Liliana Padilla and Steph Paul, the hybrid comedy drama considers safety, consent and the litigated definitions of rape and harassment, which shift based upon geographical location, accuser and victim.

With the setting as a torpid and tumultuous college campus when individuals are beginning to define their goals, dreams and intentions, sexuality and choices remain fluid. A decision to be with someone can lead to devastation, especially around stimulants, alcohol and drugs at a testosterone-fueled frat party, where young women are pressured to compromise themselves. At the top of the play we are introduced to women in a self-defense class started by college junior Brandi (Talia Ryder). The confident, black belt with Social Media videos of herself disarming a bully with a gun, is a self-appointed, self-defense instructor, who decides to teach students the ways to protect themselves, after sorority sister Susannah is raped and hospitalized. The assault happened at a frat party with.

(L to R): Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza, Sebastian Delascasas, Gabriela Ortega in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza, Sebastian Delascasas, Gabriela Ortega in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Much of the enjoyment of Padilla’s play is becoming acquainted with the buoyant women and two young men in the class. They reveal their humorous attitudes as they attempt to navigate a culture whose roiling currents are being defined from moment to moment, dislocating both men and women who may be easily overcome by intimate circumstances which they assume they have control over but don’t. Brandi, whose self-assurance, determination to do good and organized, talented, physical skills, not only looks dancer fit, but is also lovely. Admired and accepted by her peers, she is a member of a hot sorority and has the cache to hold self-defense sessions, which attract a few neophytes who are there to learn self-defense, and some for other reasons.

Brandi runs her sessions tightly with precision. She expects her peers to evolve toward her confidence level, so they understand that “anything can be used as a weapon,” and primarily, their own bodies are weapons. Along with her, Kara (Sarah Marie Rodriguez), who joins her BFF for moral support and fun, but lacks Brandi’s skill set, assists Brandi with chatter and chalkboard drawings in the college gym space (finely designed by You-Shin Chen) where Brandi holds classes.

 (L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Ariana Mahallati in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Ariana Mahallati in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Two students, who drift in anxious to get started, arrive before Brandi. We learn that freshman Diana is obsessed about defending herself against guns, and her BFF Mojdeh follows fast in her orbit. Humorous and sociable Diana ((Gabriela Ortega at the top of her game) and Mojdeh (Ariana Mahallati) are primarily there to become closer to Brandi who is a Zeta Chi, the sorority they would both like to rush. It escapes them that the group think atmosphere of sororities and fraternities are precisely the communities that can be toxic and abusive. However, Mojdeh craves to be identified with being “cool” and seeks the hot, popular individuals to ride their coattails to achieve acceptance as the fastest way to self-love. For her part Diana appears to be self-content, and is humorous in how she fetishizes guns to the point where by the the end of the play, she indulges in her passion.

The last young woman to join Brandi’s sessions is Nikki (Amaya Braganza) whose entrance provokes laughter because she appears super shy, hesitant and awkward. Throughout, she is mysterious and apparently reticent, until the conversation opens up and she admits she gave a “blow job” to a guy in a gasoline station. When Brandi and Kara attempt to kindly excuse her humiliating low status behavior as a mistake, she clearly states that she was fine with it and it was her idea. Whether she is lying or fronting is difficult to surmise. Hiding behind “it’s OK” is oftentimes the default response because it is too messy to get into who is responsible, who is to blame and what does being forced mean.

 (L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Sarah Marie Rodriguez in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Gabriela Ortega, Sarah Marie Rodriguez in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Kara indirectly insults her by stating that she has done such things, too, as mistakes. Nikki is nonplussed. Interestingly, Padilla’s characters veer off topic into personal discussions about what touching makes them uncomfortable and boundaries.

The play reveals that the idea of self-defense encompasses more than just a physical way of being. But young men and women are at sea with regard to “growing up” with their sexual identity that is forced upon them by the culture and their friends. Oftentimes, as Eggo suggests, they are clueless about what is the right or wrong way to conduct themselves, have relationships and fall in love during which sexuality isn’t necessarily the main ingredient that holds people together.

To add substance to the mix, Padilla includes the male perspective, having Brandi invite two fraternity brothers, Andy (Sebastian Delascasas) and Eggo (Jayson Lee). They are “down” with #metoo and are supportive of Susannah during her recuperation and the criminal charges against the fraternity brother who assaulted her. To distinguish themselves from the “sexual abuser types” roaming their campus, Andy and Eggo hysterically ply their sanctimonious “we support women” BS, the moment they enter the room and introduce themselves. Especially since their frat “bro” committed a crime which everyone is apprised of in the fraternities and sororities on campus, they are “running scared” that any behavior can be interpreted as predatory. Their loud moralistic approach toward women is hysterical and we expect they will marching in the next women’s protest to encourage female empowerment.

(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Ariana Mahallati, Jayson Lee, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Amaya Braganza, Gabriela Ortega Talia Ryder in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Ariana Mahallati, Jayson Lee, Sarah Marie Rodriguez, Amaya Braganza, Gabriela Ortega, Talia Ryder in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Padilla’s themes are not lost on us. Sexualized images and behaviors, part of the landscape of American culture in the entertainment industry and fashion industry were shattered by #metoo. The nascent revolution that sprang up after the Harvey Weinstein debacle shuttered a billion dollar company and gave pseudo power to women for a time, only in the parts of the country which are not Republican and are “woke.” For everywhere else, the men act as they please and the women go along with it, especially if they are proving they are not “socialist lefties.” In the play, the characters are diverse: three persons of color, a Mexican-American, an Iranian-American and two whites. They are stuck with having to deal with “woke” culture. Vitally, the discussion in the middle of the play about what consent means and the question about having to always check with a partner about boundaries, Kara blows it up with her suggestion that she finds there is nothing wrong with wanting S and M sex, though Brandi calls her out for being inappropriate.

Clearly, Kara has issues with alcohol and wanting to be hurt which hints at subterranean troubles that are never revealed. We note them when she doesn’t join in the physical sessions because she got “wasted” the previous evening. On the other hand she isn’t embarrassed about sharing that she enjoys rough sex, getting off on the shock value of telling others.

(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Talia Ryder, Ariana Mahallati in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
(L to R): Sebastian Delascasas, Talia Ryder, Ariana Mahallati in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The most interesting segments of the production are the self-defense moves that Brandi teaches (well choreographed by Steph Paul, movement director) and the physical fight routines they accomplish together (at the guidance of Rocio Mendez). Late in the play there is a fight that breaks out between Diana and Kara that is well staged. The fight exemplifies that ego, charm and pride are always a competitive force. Between these two women, there is almost an intuitive impulse to dislike each other which eventually dissipates after Diana smashes Kara in the face.

The staging for these scenes works seamlessly and is powerful and exciting to watch as the movement is pitched to music which pumps up the characters and reveals they are gaining confidence about themselves. Additionally, when Brandi suggests they pair off to practice techniques, for example how to break an attacker’s wrist grip, the results are simultaneously wrought and the overlapping dialogue and action between the pairs makes for fascinating comparisons.

There are surprising turns throughout. Diana and Mojdeh discover things about each other that set their relationship on a different path so that they can’t be close anymore. Kara and Brandi have a disagreement about Susannah, and Andy reveals a secret to Eggo that he has been harboring since the attack on Susannah, that upsets them both. When Andy asks what he should do, Eggo is at a loss about what to tell him. Finally, after a number of sessions where Brandi’s “students” have made progress and she feels she has made inroads into making them feel safer, Nikki upends her assumptions and disturbs everyone with an event that she discusses happened to her.

Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza in 'How to Defend Yourself' (courtesy of Joan Marcus)
Jayson Lee, Amaya Braganza in How to Defend Yourself (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In the conclusion which moves through flashbacks in stages of adolescence back to the age of innocence, we see the individuals at three parties during their teen years which move in reverse to a birthday party when they were in elementary school. The parties reveal the wildness from the drinking and sexual exploration when they were in high school back to the innocent days in elementary school. For the rapid set changes You-Shin Chen, Stacey Derosier lighting designer, Izumi Inaba costume design and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design create a frenetic party atmosphere. And the tableau at the end reveals that the progression of their identities has sprung from love, security, family and well being. One might think that these create an assured line of defense to thwart any attack that might ever happen.

However, Padillia posits, security is never guaranteed. Though we may use our bodies as weapons, random and not so random acts of violence happen in a world of violence, where Diana most probably will arm herself with a licensed gun to answer it.

Co-directors Rachel Chavkin, Liliana Padilla & Steph Paul are responsible for the strengths of the production: its staging and thematic resonance. Their vision about the questions the play raises leaves us with even more questions and no clear answers. The actors are uniformly excellent and the physicality and staging of the various defense sessions make one want to get up and join the cast to try out all the moves.

This is an entertaining, humorous show with themes to give us pause and fine execution by the creatives. For tickets and times go to their website

‘runboyrun’ and ‘In Old Age’ Two Magnificent Works by Mfoniso Udofia

Chiké Johnson, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, runboyrun, In Old Age, Loretta Greco, Awoye Timpo, Mfoniso Udofia

Chiké Johnson, Patrice Johnson Chevannes in runboyrun and In Old Age, written by Mfoniso Udofia, directed by Loretta Greco, Awoye Timpo (Joan Marcus)

What is the impact of experiencing a genocidal civil war when one’s ancestry, bloodline and religion are used as targeted excuses for extermination? If one survives, is it possible to overcome the wartime horrors one experienced? Or is the sufferer doomed to circularly repeat the emotional ravages of past events that erupt from the unconscious and imprison the captive forever in misery? How is such a cycle broken to begin a process of healing?

In runboyrun, Mfoniso Udofia, first-generation Nigerian-Amerian playwright, through poetic flashback and mysterious revelation, with parallel action fusing the past with the present, explores these questions. Majestically, in her examination of principal characters Disciple Ufot (the superb Chiké Johnson), and his long-suffering wife Abasiama Ufot (the equally superb Patrice Johnson Chevannes), we witness how Disciple overcomes decades of suffering with the help of Abasiama during a night which is a turning point toward hope and redemption.

Chiké Johnson,Karl Green, Adrianna K. Mitchell, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, runboyrun, In Old Age, Mfoniso Udofia, Loretta Greco, Awoye Timpo

Chiké Johnson, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Karl Green, Adrianna K. Mitchell in runboyrun and In Old Age, written by Mfoniso Udofia, directed by Loretta Greco, Awoye Timpo (Joan Marcus)

A bit of backstory is warranted. In 2017 New York Theatre Workshop presented two of Mfoniso Udofia’s plays in repertory (Sojourners, Her Portmanteau). runboyrun and In Old Age are two of Mfonsio Udofia’s offerings which are plays in The Ufot Cycle, a series of nine plays in total which chronicles four generations of a family of stalwart women and men of Nigerian descent. Though the plays currently presented at NYTW are conjoined to elucidate similar themes, they do not run in sequence. Nevertheless, both plays spotlight Mfonsio Udofia as a unique female voice of the African diaspora in the United States. Both represent the particularity of her exceptional work from a maverick’s perspective.

The first play directed by Loretta Greco begins with a flashback of a sister and brother. The setting is January, 1968 Biafra, the southern part of Nigeria that attempted to gain independence from Nigeria during the three year Biafran Civil War. During a lull in the shelling by the government in a hideout in the bush, the sister comforts her brother with a metaphorical story about the foundation of humanity and life. Then she encourages him to run as a game. However, it is the one activity that will save their lives as they escape the Nigerian soldiers at every turn, until they reach a safe place in a compound with their mother and brother.

Chiké Johnson, Karl Green, Adesola Osakalumi, runboyrun, Mfoniso Udofia

Chiké Johnson, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Karl Green, Adrianna K. Mitchell in runboyrun and In Old Age, written by Mfoniso Udofia, directed by Loretta Greco, Awoye Timpo (Joan Marcus)

This setting alternates to the present January, 2012, where we are introduced to the Ufots, transplanted Nigerians who immigrated to the United States, became citizens and eventually settled in the ramshackle interior of their colonial house in Massachusetts. However, from the moment Johnson’s Disciple enters their cold, dank home and with bellicosity relates to Chevannes’ Abasiama, we understand that their estrangement is acute. For her part Abasiama, who lies on the couch in the center of the living room wrapped up in layers of clothing with blankets and sheets thrown over her head, disengages from his behaviors, attempting to stay away from his weird, oppressive antics.

Disciple attempts to control her every move, berates and blames her for the bad spirits in the house. However, it becomes obvious that it is he who suffers derangement. He is fixated on the perception that everything outside him and especially his wife are the source of his bad luck and the wickedness that plagues him and threatens to upend his life and his writing. In what we learn has become a ritualistic practice, Disciple uses a thin stick to circumscribe areas as safe to prevent evil spirits from disarranging and unsettling his peace. Abasiama, used to this behavior, plays Christian music; Christianity was a part of their Igbo ancestry. However, after Disciple’s exorcism, when he attempts to begin work on a new book, the past erupts. Once more the playwright creates flashbacks which establish and explain Disciple’s instability and borderline insanity.

runboyrun Mfoniso Udofia, Loretta Greco

The full cast of runboyrun, written by Mfoniso Udofia, directed by Loretta Greco (Joan Marcus)

Udofia’s structure interlacing the past with the present is particularly strengthened by Andrew Boyce’s scenic design which threads the action, symbols and themes. The house is divided in a cross section symbolizing the division in Disciple’s and Abasiama’s relationship and marriage so we see how both conduct their lives in separate parts of the house: Abasiama upstairs, Disciple in the basement. They do not communicate, nor are they intimate with each other’s thoughts and feelings, sharing little if anything of their histories, a tragedy which has led to the disintegration of their marriage. Their lives are separately lived; they buy food separately, use different refrigerators. Disciple cooks for himself and they take their meals separately because he believes she may poison him.

The separation extends even to the different churches they attend and Disciple’s cruel treatment of Abasiama, which she sustains because to take a stand against it would rain down more abuse. Disciple begrudges Abasiama warmth for the upper floors which have insufficient heat to brace up against the cold Worcester, Massachusetts winter. This behavior of keeping the upper floors cold reflects Disciple’s abusiveness and penuriousness, not only with finances but with emotional intimacy and love.

Chiké Johnson, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, runboyrun, In Old Age, Loretta Greco, Awoye Timpo, Mfoniso Udofia

Chiké Johnson, Patrice Johnson Chevannes in ‘runboyrun’ and ‘In Old Age,’ written by Mfoniso Udofia, directed by Loretta Greco, Awoye Timpo (Joan Marcus)

The division/cross section symbolizes a number of elements which define the characters so acutely portrayed by Johnson and Chevannes with maximum authenticity. It represents the compartmentalization of Abasiama’s and Disciple’s minds, especially Disciple’s as it relates to his unconscious memories which he’s suppressed, and on this night erupt with great ferocity.  For Abasiama, she compartmentalizes her rage and anger against Disciple; to express the emotions will result in violence so she must be stoic. The events that play out from the past take place in the “basement” area. Events move upstairs when Abasiama extends grace to Disciple and he relives the flashback that has shaken his soul and increasingly knocked on his heart to be released as he has aged. If he does not, surely he will damage and destroy everything he has, most importantly his relationship with Abasiama.

It is in the “basement” of his being on this particular night that Disciple confronts the spirits that have haunted him for decades. By the play’s conclusion he revisits the blood soaked memories of his childhood during the horrors of the Biafran War. The spirits rise and their energy drives him to the brink of irrationality, which he takes out on Abasiama, who finally proclaims “enough,” and tells him she wants a divorce. In shock he returns downstairs and she hears him raving against the energies that roil him (his unconscious terror and guilt).

Adrianna K. Mitchell, Karl Green, runboyrun, Mfoniso Udofia

Adrianna Mitchell, Karl Green, ‘runboyrun,’ written by Mfoniso Udofia (Joan Marcus)

Mfoniso Udofia expertly weaves in concurrent flashbacks which reveal seminal events that shattered Disciple’s consciousness and emotionally freeze him in time. We learn why he is psychotic in recreated scenes of his family: sister (Adrianna Mitchell), mother (Zenzi Williams), Benjamin (Adesola Osakalumi). Karl Green portrays Disciple as a boy. And on Abasiama’s encouragement and love, he finally reaches the core event to expurgate it and grieve, thus beginning the healing process.

Chiké Johnson is acutely, sensitively invested in his portrayal of Disciple. Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Abasiama is expert and uplifting at the conclusion of runboyrun. And in the segue to the next play, we see her transformation into a withered, dried up old woman living with the rage and fury bestowed upon her by Disciple who has died by the opening of In Old Age.

Ron Canada, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, In Old Age, Awoye Timpo

Ron Canada, Patrice Johnson Chevannes in In Old Age, directed by Awoye Timpo, written by Mfoniso Udofia (Joan Marcus)

It is Abasiama’s fury that has carried over from her time with Disciple that Mfoniso Udofia examines in the play In Old Age. The stoicism we see in runboyrun blossoms into rage against herself for “putting up with” Disciple and not leaving him. Whether such anger manifests when we age, so that we have no tolerance for ourselves and are grumpy and angry with others is an interesting question that Mfoniso Udofia posits. Yet, it is in Abasiama’s interactions with Azell Abernathy the workman (Ron Canada), that the emotional abuse she never discussed or confronted Disciple about is now coming to call. And likewise, the tragic alcoholic-fueled abuse that centered around Abernathy’s marriage, that Abasiama intuits harmed his marriage, becomes a focal point of their interactions.

Abernathy and Abasiama clash and their expressed annoyances with each other are sometimes humorous. However, because they are both Christians, they attempt to bear up with one another. Indeed, Abernathy is much more determined to do so than initially Abasiama seems to want to. How Mfoniso Udofia brings these two together to establish the beginnings of a loving relationship is a lesson in grace and the spiritual need for forgiveness and emotional healing.

Ron Canada, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, In Old Age, Mfoniso Udofia, Awoye Timpo, NYTW

Ron Canada, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, ‘In Old Age,’ written by Mfoniso Udofia, directed by Awoye Timpo (Joan Marcus)

The plot development of In Old Age is simple. Azell Abernathy must persuade Abasiama to allow him to repair her house, the same house that she lived in with Disciple. However, the house is in more than need of repair. Abasiama hears what she believes is Disciple ranging and banging around in the basement. Just like in runboyrun when Disciple projected his terror and hurt onto Abasiama, now Abasiama projects her rage and anger onto the house and in magical realism fashion, it manifests in banging and noise.

One of the problems is that Abasiama subverted her own healing and empowerment to help Disciple redeem himself. Now she regrets her sacrifice and unselfishness. As a result, when Abasiama is forced to deal with Azell Abernathy (Ron Canada in a highly nuanced, sensitive, clarion performance), whom her daughters have paid to repair the house, the rage has so swelled inside of her she drips bile. Toward Abernathy, she is provocative and she riles him to the point where he nearly becomes abusive. However, he has learned. He leaves, goes outside and prays for her.

Ron Canada, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, In Old Age, Awoye Timpo, NYTW, Mfoniso Udofia

Ron Canada, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, In Old Age, written by Mfoniso Udofia, directed by Awoye Timpo (Joan Marcus)

His prayers work with power and change comes with revelation. Abasiama realizes she can no longer carry around past hurts and regrets. To expurgate them, she cleans out the “basement” (symbolic of her own soul and psyche), of all of the artifacts that Disciple kept there. As she throws them out, she frees herself realizing she is responsible for her own happiness and cannot blame her misery on Disciple. Cleansed from a night of dealing with her own regrets about her life, Abasiama is ready to face a new day. In a great, symbolic gesture, Abernathy washes her feet as Christ did with his disciples, showing he forgives her and forgives himself. It is an act of sublime strength. She receives his good will, Christian love and faith. She removes her shackles represented by her headdress and shows Abernathy her true self. She is beautiful. In their old age they have found love after confessing their faults to each other to be healed.

In Old Age is a hopeful, redemptive encomium to our ability to grow and regenerate our souls if we face ourselves. Directed by Awoye Timpo, In Old Age is just lovely and the complex performances by Canada and Chevannes are sterling, poignant and uplifting. Kudos to Andrew Boyce (scenic design), Karen Perry (costume design), Oona Curley (lighting design).

These are productions you do not want to miss for the profound beauty of Mfoniso Udofia’s work and the great ensemble acting. The tension in runboyrun is truly striking. runboyrun and In Old Age are at NYTW on 4th Street between 2nd and the Bowery. The production runs with one intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.




Theater Review (NYC): ‘What The Constitution Means to Me’ Starring Heidi Schreck

What The Constitution Means to Me, NYTW, Rosedely iprain, Heidi Schreck,Thursday Williams, Mike Iveson,

(L to R): Rosdely Ciprain, Heidi Schreck-playwright, Thursday Williams, Mike Iveson, ‘What The Constitution Means to Me,’ NYTW, (Joan Marcus)

Depending upon how you view the months since the 2016 election, playwright, actress Heidi Schreck’s timely What the Constitution Means to Me casts a long shadow and provides trenchant perspectives. Of course one may view it simply as a pleasurable, informative romp through a document most remain clueless about. Or perhaps one may identify that her humorous, vibrant writing more profoundly remains a siren call to “get woke!”

Indeed, the production staged and set in an American Legion Hall, directed by Oliver Butler, stars award winning actress and writer Heidi Schreck. And it took years in the making. With assistance by fellow actor Mike Iveson and debater Rosdely Ciprain, the result sparkles. Schreck’s crisp, sharp, ironic writing encapsulates American themes and pivotal, historical moments that changed our laws. Abundantly, these perplex. For they concern the constitution’s long-range evolution toward greatness. But Schreck also includes how the people have stretched the document over the chasm of far reaching human miseries. At any time it may break, and our society plummet into the abyss. Her work and its cattle-prod intent remain a fascinating, thought-provoking must-see.

Indeed, humorous and enthusiastic throughout, Schreck’s “light-hearted” approach belies the seriousness of the subject in today’s light/dark atmospheres. For she presents profound and disquieting principles and facts about our lives that we cannot dismiss. And she accomplishes what the news media at times does not. She presents with succinct, factual details and logical arguments that clarify. Importantly, she makes one think beyond memes and spurious arguments, troll epithets, and misinterpretations!

Heidi Schreck, What The Constitution Means to Me, Rosdely Ciprain, Mike Iveson, Clubbed Thumb in partnership with True Love Productions

Rosdely Ciprain, Heidi Schreck, Mike Iveson, Clubbed Thumb in partnership with True Love Productions, ‘What The Constitution Means to Me,’ (Joan Marcus)

This alone remains worth the price of the ticket. In fact her production should be opened to area schools. Sitting just 10 minutes into the first half of the performance solidifies why. With a facile, funny, and vitally spontaneously delivery, Schreck becomes our vibrant teacher and historian. Notably, she proves the past abides in the present through her debates about the amendments. These concern those (9th, 4th), not typically familiar. Nevertheless, she proves why we should know them as crucial to our rights and well being.

During the production, Schreck reveals her personal veneration of our country’s democratic principles particularly outlined in the laws written after the Civil War. The quotes from distinguished justices and presidents alike illuminate. Assuredly, most amendments guarantee equity for every citizen and the rights of due process for all. And she notes the pitfalls where such principles and laws wobbled and continue to shake. Subtly, she infers that we must continually apprise ourselves of our constitution’s ever flexible nature.

Heidi Schreck, Oliver Butler, NYTW, What The Constitution Means to Me

Heidi Schreck, actress, playwright, ‘What The Constitution Means to Me,’ directed by Oliver Butler, NYTW (Joan Marcus)

Evolution and devolution include the same letters save one. In other words we are a letter away from the collapse of the bedrock laws of equity. If pernicious, power-usurping partisans undo just applications for the great majority to benefit the proportionately few wealthy, contentment, and prosperity wanes for most citizens. Exemplified, though not mentioned in Schreck’s work would be Citizens United which favors corporate donors giving multi-millions to politicians’ PACS thereby owning them.

Rosdely Ciprain, Heidi Schreck, Mike Iveson,Clubbed Thumb in partnership with True Love Productions, ‘What The Constitution Means to Me,’ (Joan Marcus)

Additionally, her discussion relating the constitution’s impact on women in her own family acknowledges strides. But it also portends fissures and potential earthquakes setting “women’s rights” back decades. This discussion Schreck attends to in the second segment of her production

Winningly, in the first half Schreck recalls her teenage years and how she employed her reading, writing and research skills to earn needed college scholarship money. As a teenager she competed in debates for various prizes from the American Legion. Indeed, these competitions challenged her thinking and debate skills. Of course her presentation centered around “what the constitution meant to her” at that age. Thus, she uses this presentation format which she delivers to white military legionnaires (we, her audience, become them), at the American Legion Hall in the state of Washington. And returning to her teenage self, she argues the constitution’s relevance to her, evoking these debates. In the fast forward to now, we compare notes and assess our progress in the current times.

This clever vehicle allows Schreck and Mike Iveson (as a Legionnaire and himself), to set up her detailed and fascinating account of women in her family and how the constitution might have and then did impact them. As she discusses the lies promulgated to bring women to settle Washington state (one woman for every nine men), she enumerates the suicides and death rates of wives at the hands of their husbands. For example, her great, great-grandmother, a mail-order bride, ended up in an asylum and died of melancholia in her thirties. Schreck ruminates about the possible back story of what happened to her. Dismissively, we may think, “times have changed.”

Heidi Schreck, What The Constitution Means to Me, Oliver Butler, NYTW

Heidi Schreck, actress, playwright, ‘What The Constitution Means to Me,’ directed by Oliver Butler, NYTW (Joan Marcus)

Then, she reveals today’s statistics. One in three women will be abused by male partners. One in four women are raped by men. And half of women killed die at the hands of their partners. However, women, no longer chattel (property), may seek justice. At one point in our history husbands could kill their wives with impunity. Yet, with lawsuits against Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, and others, the #MeToo movement is a vital necessity. But will it negatively impact the constitution with the recent justice appointment?

In the third segment Schreck goes head-to-head with a student debater about whether we should keep or abolish the current constitution and create a new one. The evening I saw the production, Rosdely Ciprain revealed her feisty, funny debating chops and bested Schreck. However, Schreck’s spot-on argument about creating a positive rights constitution like those found in many European countries rang with sound truth.

What are negative vs. positive rights? Our negative rights constitution insures what the government cannot do to its citizens. On the other hand a positive rights constitution indicates what the government must provide: safety, security, healthcare, a living wage. After WWII FDR intended to institute a Second Bill of Rights which would have shifted the direction of our rights to positive ones. Of course, this became anathema to conservative corporates. And they held sway over our government and still do today.

Ours is a negative rights constitution. Hence, the government does not guarantee affordable healthcare, a decent living wage, human rights over corporate rights, mandates limiting excessive CEO pay, a proportionate equitable tax structure, etc. And it may rescind a “woman’s right to choose” what she might do with her own body.” Certainly, our congress has yet to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.

Preamble, Constitution, Heidi Schreck, What The Constitution Means to Me, NYTW, Oliver Butler

Preamble to the Constitution, Heidi Schreck, ‘What The Constitution Means to Me,’ NYTW, directed by Oliver Butler, (photo courtesy of the site)

Throughout, this superb production keeps one enthralled and laughing. But Schreck’s points run far and wide as she encourages our active participation in civics to understand our current historical reckoning. Thematically, she infers much. I divine from her work that like watchful sentinels, we must support the ACLU and other advocacy groups. And with them we must hold accountable our politicians to prevent thinning the constitutional threads so that they never break. Indeed, we must prevent the political think tanks and lobbyists who control our legislators from overriding through the courts the will of the majority of U.S. taxpayers/citizens. In the current tide of the Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh times, this “must” appears more problematic than ever.

However, Schreck evokes a hopeful image her mother, a feminist, suggested to uplift her. First, picture a woman walking along a beach with a dog which darts back and forth, in the tide and waves. The dog races forward then races behind her and backtracks from whence it came. Then it moves forward, then backward. However, the woman walks forward, forward, steadily, slowly, undeterred, forward. This metaphor encourages us to hope. Not only to hope for women, but to hope for men, and LBGT communities who support equitable, positive rights for all born in this nation. And along with hope must come the energy to debate and persuade with reason and logic how undergirding the vulnerable and weak strengthens the strong.

The production currently at New York Theatre Workshop (83 E 4th Street) until 28 October, runs with no intermission. With scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Michael Krass, lighting design by Jen Schriever, and sound design by Sinan Zafar, this humorous masterwork should be extended. Hopefully, it will attend at another venue at some point in the near future. For tickets and times go to

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