Heidi Schreck workshopped What the Constitution Means to Me over a number of years. Her efforts and overwhelming audience responses have taken the production from Off Broadway to Broadway’s The Helen Hayes Theater. Presented by The Clubbed Thumb, True Love Productions and New York Theatre Workshop, What the Constitution Means to Me, written/performed by Schreck, directed by Oliver Butler, offers a striking look at a document we should be familiar with since it governs and compels our every waking moment.
What audience members will discover during the presentation is that the devil is in the details, the interpretation of laws in the amendments and laws decided by the Supreme Court: the crucial ones related to Schreck’s personal life, she reviews.
As Schreck affirms, Supreme Court interpretations shift despite public opinion, depending upon the power brokers who control the narrative…a trend in the decades since Regan. We have seen the court move the values of this country from the decency and humanity of the 1960s liberalism to restrictive Federalist society conservatism led by Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and to what today may only be described as retrograde rightist extremism. Just a few days ago, the court made a decision in Bucklew v. Precythe that a torturous death was OK during capital punishment, setting a horrific precedent.
Schreck offers a riveting opportunity to revisit vital segments of the document which has established our rights as citizens at a time when these very rights are under threat by an administration which demonstrates little respect for it or the rule of law. Nor does the current administration or president abide by the oath of office which is to uphold the constitution whose amendments he has no qualms about challenging in the courts or in the press.
Clearly, because of the chaos and divisiveness in our culture (which Schreck references a number of times with great humor) seeing this production is a civic and moral imperative which should be made mandatory for high school students. Not only are Schreck and the other cast members Rosdely Ciprian (a 15-year-old) and Mike Iveson humorous and exuberant, the material is highly entertaining and extremely informative. It is a fabulous and exciting way to learn about our constitution. Indeed, the president, vice-president and cabinet should see the production.
Schreck introduces us to many facets of our diamond document by organizing the development of the production in an intriguing way. She refers to the time when her mother, a debate coach, encouraged her to compete in speech contests at American Legion Halls across the nation on the topic of “how the constitution related to her personal life.” Reconstructing her speeches which she gave as a teenager to collect money for college, Schreck turns back time to her fifteen-year-old self. She converts the audience to white, older, male legionnaires and fires away with the help of legionnaire Mike Iveson who times segments of her speech and times her discussions of a selected amendment.
All of these she relates to her own life and thus the lives of women impacted by the constitution for over two centuries. Indeed, women, Native Americans, free blacks, slaves weren’t even recognized as citizens from its creation by white property owners. Schreck follows the arc of development in the progress of women as non citizens under the constitution to the non-passage of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) today.
She touches upon the injustices toward all except the white, male, property owners, and the later revisions in the amendments, particularly the 14th amendment. She revisits the Dred Scott Decision and its reversal in the Emancipation Proclamation and the reasons why Lincoln had writers solidify the 13th amendment with the 14th amendment. She references the Chinese Exclusion Act and how it related to the 14th amendment’s clauses on immigration (shades of our present). And all of this she accomplishes with humor and good will.
During Schreck’s discussions she emphasizes seminal information related to women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, what amendments engendered Roe v. Wade, the ironic and humorous stories related to the legalization of birth control and staggering statistics which reveal that men’s violence against women is alive and brutalizing the “fairer sex.” For example three women are murdered each day by a male partner in this country. One in three women are sexually assaulted during their lifetimes and one in four are raped during their lifetimes.
It doesn’t mentor sterling male behavior that the president has been accused of raping minors (see Jeffrey Epstein). One whistlebloewer who was going to go public about her experiences with Epstein and Trump withdrew because she was threatened with death. Nor does it help that Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh faced tremendous controversy at his nomination hearing from women who accused him of sexual abuse and even rape. Oh well, “Boys will be boys.” (sardonic irony) He was given a pass.
Schreck also discusses the details of Castle Rock v. Gonzales…again in the service of paralleling what happened in her family, to her mother and grandmother. In Castle Rock v. Gonzales, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th amendment no longer protects women against a violent male partner if the police feel they don’t want to intervene between a wife and husband who has sworn he will kill her and her children.
Later in the production Schreck discusses how her grandmother who survived an abusive, pederastic second husband via “Covert Resistance,” finally had the courage to run after him when he kidnapped Schreck’s mom and her other siblings to kill them. But it was Schreck’s mom who called the police on him. This was before Castle Rock v. Gonzales. Today, would the police respond as they did then?
One number Schreck states I had not heard before. More American women have been killed by a violent partner in the last century than men who have died in wars including 9/11. She makes it a point to affirm “killed by a male partner,” not just “killed.” That today, the law/government does not protect women against a partner’s violence, staggers one’s being.
All of this information is presented in the service of personalizing the importance of the constitution to Schreck’s life and thus, to our lives. It is mind-blowing! Always fascinating she discusses how her maternal ancestors bowed down under the oppressions of the rule of law which didn’t cotton to women’s rights and as a result, women at the time sustained violence and abuse. For example her great great grandmother who was a bride purchased from “Matrimonial Times,” for $75.00, at 37-years-old died in a mental institution. On the death certificate, the cause was “melancholia.” Schreck infers she most probably ended up shattered by a relationship with her abusive logger husband.
In the last segment of the show Schreck and Rosdely Ciprian go head-to-head in a debate about whether we should abolish our “negative rights constitution” (it prevents the government from encroaching on our liberties) and perhaps establish a “positive rights constitution” (one that guarantees human rights to all for healthcare, equal economic opportunity, etc. like the constitutions of Germany and South Africa). How they debate (guided by Mike Iveson who times them) is just plain fun. Iveson encourages loud audience participation and cheering. And Rosdely Ciprian is an absolute spitfire.
What the Constitution Means to Me is a peppery, unique and delightful evening out. It is also slap-in-your-face get “woke” time in what Schreck reveals to us about who we are and where we’ve come from. The dense material is lightly driven by Schreck so that you remember the salient points. And all of this is presented with great good will in the hope that we become civic-minded. We must not allow the current crop of old, white, male, rich prototypes like those who created the document to perpetrate another act of violence against women. Men and women must prevent them from turning us out among the denizens of the deep without protection into a retrograde past. As women go, so go their men and families; men will suffer even more than women.
With the latest turn of the Supreme Court to rightest extremism, this is not just fantasy. But to consolidate power, it is in the best interests of the Federalist Society (that Antonin Scalia championed) and the extremist right to push the Supreme Court to such ultra right positions on cases and denude the majority of citizens of their human rights.
Sadly, to overturn Roe v. Wade and other laws that have empowered women will be active tyranny against lower class women. Schreck points out that wealthy women, (politicians’ mistresses, celebrities, etc.) always got abortions and always will regardless of legality. Money places them above the law. However, to cruelly nullify women’s souls and minds from making decisions about their own bodies is an evangelical act against God. Only He has power over all people’s minds and souls. That white men would usurp that power is tantamount to exercising a power which is the opposite of His love and mercy.
Kudos to all the creatives like Rachel Hauck (Scenic Design), Michael Krass (Costume Design) Jen Schriever (Lighting Design) Sinan Refik Zafar (Sound Design) who helped to make this a wonderful, must-see production that is an imperative for old and young alike. What the Constitution Means to Me runs without an intermission in an extension until 24 August. It is at The Helen Hayes Theater (44th Street, between 7th and 8th). For tickets go to the website by clicking HERE.
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 nytw.org.