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What the Constitution Means to Me



What the Constitution Means to Me


                      By Ron Cohen


It could be described as a civics lesson disguised as a play…or vice versa. Or it could be called a personal family memoir, relating the years of domestic violence and disparagement endured by women, abuse and inequality tacitly supported or ignored by the Constitution. At the same time, it’s a Constitution fan letter, pointing out how interpretation of the founding document and its amendments made such things as birth control and abortion legal.


But whatever else it is, What the Constitution Means to Me is an extraordinary piece of theatre, so relevant or woke – as the kids say – it can just about blow your mind.


Performer-writer Heidi Schreck bounds on stage at the start, a fireball of energy and good humor, infectiously eager to share her writing -- and her life. She tells us that at age 15 she traveled the country giving speeches about the Constitution in oratory contests sponsored by the American Legion, winning enough money with her speechifying and debating to pay for her college education.


She then goes on to recreate one of those speech-giving sessions at the American Legion Hall in Wenatchee, Washington, her rural home town, which as she tells us, is “The Apple Capital of the World.” The ambiance is well established by the set, designed by Rachel Hauck, a formal-looking red-carpeted stage surrounded by walls covered with rows of photos of Legion members.


In her speech, Schreck says the Constitution is like a witch’s cauldron…a “pot in which you put many different ingredients and boil them together until they transform into something else.” Furthermore, a witch’s cauldron is a crucible, “a severe test…of patience and belief.” The framers of the Constitution didn’t get everything right, she continues, but that’s what amendments are for. And Schreck turns to Amendment Nine as “the most magical and mysterious.” It says, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”


Amendment Nine, Schreck declares, is “amazing. The Constitution doesn’t tell you all the rights you have…because it doesn’t know… It acknowledges that who we are now may not be who we will become. It leaves a little room…for the future self?”


As you might suspect, things are becoming a little deep, a little complex, and they only get deeper and more complex as the young speech-maker goes on, often stretching time as she interpolates into her narrative things that happened to her later in her life. When as part of the contest, she is required to extemporaneously discuss another amendment, she is given Amendment 14, which, she exclaims, “is like a giant, super-charged force field protecting all of our human rights.”


Among its various clauses, it states: “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” This, Schreck says, is “the heart of the 1973 Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade,” giving a woman “the right to decide what to do with her own body.” And she goes on to tell us the details surrounding the abortion she had six years after her debating contests.


“I got pregnant while playing Miss Julie at a tiny theater in Seattle . By the actor playing Jean.”


When Schreck gets to the clause in Amendment 14 stating “No state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,“ Schreck breaks totally away from her portrayal of her younger self: “I can’t talk about this clause as a 15-year-old. I can’t—I just want to be myself now, all the time. I want to be an adult woman in my 40s.”


Violence against women is the focal point here. Without citing sources but with fierce credibility, Schreck spits out the statistics: “Three women are murdered every day in this country by their male partners; Ten million American women live in violent households.”


In 1984, Schreck relates, lawyers attempted for the first time to use the Equal Protection Clause to address the problem. But then in 2005, the amendment was invoked again in a case of domestic violence, Castle Rock v. Gonzales, when a woman sued her local police for failure to act when her violent husband kidnapped their three daughters, daughters he murdered the next morning. The case went to the Supreme Court where it ruled that police did not have a constitutional duty to protect this woman and her children. As Schreck explains, much hinged on the interpretation of the word “shall,” that “shall” as in “the police shall protect” does not mean “must,” and we hear an actual recording of the Supreme Court judges musing over this.


“Feminist legal scholars have called this the death of the Fourteenth Amendment for women and children,” Schreck says. “It set a precedent that essentially says women have no Constitutional right to be protected from violent partners. The ruling is most devastating for women of color and queer and non-binary and transfolx, people who are less likely to be helped by police than I am.”


Making the argument personal, Schreck tells us her mother, her grandmother, her great-grandmother and most likely, her great-great-grandmother -- who was purchased as an immigrant from Germany by her husband from the “Matrimonial Times” and died in a mental institution at age 36 -- all knew violent households. She relates how her mother, as a 14-year-old girl, reported the brutality of her stepfather to the police. When he found out, he got “his constitutionally protected gun,” rounded up the kids in the family, forced them into a car and threatened to kill them. It was then her grandmother – “no matter how scared she was, no matter how that she had inherited the pretty logical belief all things considered that she was worthless in the eyes of the law” -- called the police.


In contrast to the Gonzales case, Schreck says, “The police showed up for my grandma. It was a small town. She was white.”  At the trial, though, her grandmother refused to testify against her husband. “My mom did it, at age 14. Her stepfather went to prison for ten years. Which is probably why I can be here now, telling you these stories.”


As the actress moves through this panorama of stories and legal explanations, she sometimes pauses, caught up in emotion. But other moments – many other moments -- are lightened by Schreck’s seemingly irrepressible sense of humor.


                                                                               Photos by Joam Marcus


The performance also takes on a Pirandello-like quality when the actor, Mike Iveson, portraying the American Legion member moderating the debate, drops character and tells us about the actor, delineating incidents from his life as a gay man.


The show’s documentary, semi-spontaneous feel is capped when Schreck brings on stage a young female who in real life is a debater. “When I was working on this recreation,” Schreck tells us, “I decided to meet young women who are doing these kinds of contests today. I wanted to find out what they are thinking about the Constitution. And I invited one of these brilliant young women to join us here tonight.”



The spot is filled by two women, appearing on different nights. At the performance attended, it was Thursday Williams, whose program bio tells us that she has done a variety of debates at Brooklyn Law School and New York University through the Legal Outreach Program. She recently finished a judicial internship at the Civil Supreme Court through the Sotomayor Judicial Internship Program. Oh, and by the way, she’s a senior at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens . (Alternating with Williams is Rosdely Ciprain, who is just starting high school this fall.)


Schreck and Williams debated the proposition that the Constitution should be abolished. The arguments on both sides were persuasive. It was pointed out that some countries have remade their constitutions into “positive rights” documents specifically stating the rights that citizens are entitled to, as opposed to the “negative” nature of the U.S. Constitution, which does not always delineate the rights that cannot be taken away, leaving things open to interpretation, with final say coming from the Supreme Court. (You can start worrying there.)


However, the upbeat takeaway from the debate was that the Constitution is a document that binds this diverse nation together, that it can be changed, and that it’s up to the citizens to actively participate to bring about beneficial change.


It’s a lot to absorb in an evening of theater, but under the seamless, fairly invisible direction of Oliver Butler, Schreck, like Mary Poppins, makes it go down easily with lots of spoonfuls of well-told personal recollection, clarity and humor. In addition, booklet copies of the Constitution are handed out for our further edification.


Review posted October 2018

Off-Broadway play

Playing at New York Theatre Workshop

79 East 4th Street


Playing until October 28