Film & Television

‘What the Constitution Means to Me’:
Heidi Schreck vs. The Founding Fathers

If you’ve been following the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, you’ve probably learned something about “originalism.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “The theory that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted based on the intent of its authors, as determined by examining evidence of their understanding of the meaning of its wording in its historical context.” An essay in New York magazine, which doesn’t purport to be unbiased on the subject, asserts that “originalism is less a humble method for settling constitutional disputes than a parlor trick for recasting the conservative movement’s unpopular agenda as the minimum demanded by constitutionality.” 

The antonym of “originalism” is sometimes referred to as “modernism” and views the Constitution as a “living document,” one that can and should be amended as society evolves. Our two most recently deceased justices, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg fell on opposite sides of the originalism vs. modernism debate. This didn’t prevent them from becoming fast friends, however, an extraordinary feat in such divisive times.

At the end of the day, the question is this. How literally should we adhere to a document that was signed by just 39 people — all men, all white, all property owners, and many slave owners at that — some 250 years later?

Wait, I apologize. You thought you were going to read a movie review, and here I am giving you a civics lesson. Instead, let me enthusiastically recommend What the Constitution Means to Me, a new Amazon title that will enlighten you on Constitutional theory more thoroughly than I possibly could. And, happily for any reader who would rather not go back to high school history class, it will also deliver solid entertainment, heartfelt personal stories, sublime performances, and a taste of what we lost when live theater was shuttered seven months ago.

What the Constitution Means to Me, written and starring Heidi Schreck, was first performed in the summer of 2017, commissioned and developed by Clubbed Thumb’s SummerWorks, a festival of new plays. The following year, it had a six-week run at Berkeley Rep in California. After an extended Off-Broadway run, it played on Broadway into the summer of 2019, then began touring, with stops at the Kennedy Center in D.C., the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., and the Broadway Playhouse in Chicago, where it closed early because of COVID-19. When restrictions are lifted some time in the future, it will continue to tour other U.S. cities. With the exception of its premature closing, What the Constitution Means to Me achieved a significantly shorter and more direct ascent to the Broadway stage and a national tour than most new stage works. Given its rather academic-sounding subject matter, credit probably goes to the bankability of its creator.

Schreck’s writing credits include popular and critically acclaimed television series Nurse Jackie, Billions, and I Love Dick. Another of her plays, Grand Concourse, was produced in 2014 by the Playwrights Horizons and Steppenwolf theaters. She has legitimate acting chops as well, having won two Obie Awards (Off Broadway’s equivalent of the Tony) and a Drama Desk award for Drum of the Waves of Horikawa and Circle Mirror Transformation

 

 

What the Constitution Means to Me, arguably her most ambitious project to date, received two Tony nominations (Best Play and Best Actress in a Play) and was nominated for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.

This recitation of her credits is meant to overlay some serious show business cred on a title that, let’s face it, sounds like someone’s middle school term paper. Then again, that title is more appropriate than you might think. For the first act of What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck plays herself at 15.

In real life, young Heidi traveled the United States, making original speeches and participating in debates about the Constitution. These events were sponsored by the American Legion, and the play’s fairly simple set (a podium, two desks, three chairs, and generations of Legionnaires staring sternly down from the walls) recreates one from her memory. Heidi’s tour, the brainchild of her mother, was meant to finance college. And, indeed, the young Schreck was able to pay for tuition at the University of Oregon with her prize money. Her biggest competition was another girl who wrote and performed her essay that “The Constitution is a Patchwork Quilt.” Heidi, in a more colorful analogy, describes the document as a “Crucible,” a steaming cauldron with mysterious and magical powers. Heidi, we learn, was really into witches and fairies (not to mention Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing) at the time.

After establishing her younger self’s close (and delightfully creative) relationship to our nation’s most foundational document, Schreck begins to interpret it as her adult self. She drills into the Fourteenth Amendment (because, yes, as much as this play is terrific theater, it also has a lesson (or many) to impart): “…nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” At 15, she interpreted this as a statement of unwavering protection for all, not just citizens. As a grown woman, she marvels at how much room is left to interpretation, citing historic (and tragic) cases like Dred Scott vs. Sanford and Castle Rock vs. Gonzalez, and playing a recording of justices debating the meaning of the word “shall.” Shall, it turns out, does not mean “must.”

Schreck’s own family history includes a matriarchal line that was decidedly not provided “equal protection” — beginning with her great-great grandmother, a mail-order bride who died of “melancholia” in an institution at the age of 36, and ending with her own mother, who bravely testified against a physically and sexually abusive stepfather. Schreck points out (quickly and persuasively) that the Constitution wasn’t meant to — and still does not — adequately protect the rights of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, indigenous people, or undocumented immigrants.

For most of the play (which is performed without intermission), Schreck is joined onstage by actor Mike Iveson, who stands in for an American Legion moderator but eventually speaks about his own experience as a gay man. His role, secondary to Schreck’s, corroborates her assertion that the Constitution doesn’t go far enough; the fact that it’s one of the oldest constitutions is both a blessing and a curse. There are 178 constitutions that recognize healthcare as a human right. Ours is not one of them. 

In what becomes the play’s third, final, and most invigorating act, a real-life high school parliamentary debater, brilliant, convincing (and just 14 years old when the play was filmed!) Rosedely Ciprian enters to argue with Schreck. (On Broadway, Ciprian alternated the role with Thursday Williams, who appears during the credits and in an excerpt trailer worth watching.) The question on the floor … should the Constitution be thrown out and a new one written, or should we retain it? A coin toss determines which side Ciprian and Schreck will each take, and the rapid-fire war of words inspires awe. At the end of several rounds of statements and cross-examinations, an audience member is chosen as judge and determines which side has won. I’ll leave you in suspense.

What the Constitution Means to Me, directed for the stage by Oliver Butler and for the screen by Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) and Can You Ever Forgive Mewas written three years ago, but couldn’t feel fresher or more important. Both cases for and against the Constitution are compelling, and its power (and the power of its interpreters) to affect everything from reproductive rights to immigration reform is staggering. Heller often cuts away from the action onstage to the theater’s audience, a diverse group in terms of gender and color, which reinforces how vital that antique document still is. There is much laughter and some tears, and the overall effect is as close to being in a performance space together as one can hope for from a televised movie.

Still a fan after all these years, Schreck leaves us with the thought, “Our Constitution acknowledges that who we are now might not be who we will become.” Like each of us and our country as a whole, it still needs work.

What the Constitution Means to Me is available to stream on Amazon.

 

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