Four hours before I walked in to What the Constitution Means to Me—playwright and actor Heidi Schreck’s attempt to grapple, on a scale both intensely personal and epically large, with the ways in which our nation’s founding document continues to inspire us and protect us from government’s worst impulses, yet also throughout its history has consistently betrayed and failed to represent many of our nation’s citizens and residents, especially women—the Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S Supreme Court, despite (or who knows in this crazy world; possibly even partially because of) a series of allegations that he’d sexually assaulted women during his high-school and college years. His swearing-in may well have overlapped with the opening moments of the performance.
It’s been an emotionally fraught week to be a woman in America, in other words—especially a woman, like Schreck and also like myself, who grew up in the 70s and 80s: young enough never to be a sexually active adult in a world without the protections of Griswold v. Connecticut or Roe v. Wade, but old enough to have not really been aware at the time how much of our own adolescence and young adulthood was shaped by an ethos about sex, sexuality, and particularly sexual violence that afforded far fewer protections. (Consider, for example, that the term “date rape” was coined in the 1970s and first came into popular usage in the early 1980s.) The events of the past two weeks have prompted an outpouring of stories of sexual assault and coercion, stories I’d never heard before from friends I’ve known for twenty-plus years, and never told before to members of my family: conversations that were painful but necessary, that felt like the only feeble torch to hold up in a vast cave of descending darkness.
All of which is to say that What the Constitution Means to Me, slightly unwieldy creature that it is, hit me with exquisite timeliness in this historical micro-moment. One strength of the show is the way in which it wraps a sophisticated argument about the difference between positive and negative rights and the purpose of constitutions in the first place around a nuanced look at exactly the ways in which women—twenty-first-century American women, anyway—grapple with the fear of not being safe in their bodily integrity or protected by the law. It takes questions about the specifics of any particular assault and relocates them as chillingly germane to a larger discussion about constitutional rights and protections.
For most of the play, Schreck plays her own fifteen-year-old self, who racked up college scholarship funds by participating in American Legion oratory contests about the Constitution. Without access to the actual speeches she delivered (her mother has thrown them out somewhere in the intervening thirty years), she reconstructs as best she can: full of self-conscious grit, interwoven with references to her other adolescent passion of witchcraft, and delivered with a kind of determined chirpiness that seems to contain one part naivete, two parts intentional optimism, and one part steely determination. As explained by the male American Legion representative (Mike Iveson), contestants first deliver a prepared speech on what the Constitution means to them, with emphasis on their personal connections, and then draw lots for one of four amendments to discuss extemporaneously. Schreck here chooses the first clause of the 14th Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; 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.”
Schreck’s suspicion and anxiety about the failures of the “equal protection” clause creep in gradually, first in her competition argument, and then as she starts to tell more personal stories—to connect the Constitution to her own life per the prompts—she drops what little artifice there is in her adolescent portrayal. (Director Oliver Butler’s hand is extremely light throughout but the shades of distinction between the two Heidis are testament to his skill.) As she delves into the history of violence and loss in her own family and her own life, layers of wholly adult frustration, regret, rage, and betrayal bubble up into her relationship to American history and her own history: the maltreatment of nonwhite citizens and current events; the lack of positive rights; the stubborn, persistent drumbeat of a refusal to actually protect equally the rights of women, of Native Americans, of children.
It’s the small, unflinching details of the stories Schreck tells that wield emotional power: her mother, as an adolescent, turning her violent stepfather in to the police and then testifying against him in court; Schreck herself, with trained-in politeness, pretending to be happy about an unwanted pregnancy when she accidentally goes to an anti-abortion pregnancy center. The one that I can’t stop thinking about: Schreck, as a freshman in college, accepts a ride home from an upperclassman she knows casually, then winds up having sex with him not because she wants to, really, but out of a combination of that same inbred politeness and a tiny, inchoate fear of what might happen if she says no: a small voice inside her saying “Stay alive.” She says she was 99 percent certain he wouldn’t have hurt her…but still. Still.
In the face of the pain and rage conjured up on behalf of women, the attempts to balance the scales a little by having Iveson represent a “positive male energy” struck a slightly false note. In the same sort of stripping-down and dropping character that Schreck does in stepping away from her adolescent self, Iveson takes off the American Legion uniform to reveal street clothes, and talks about the difference between moving through the world as a flamboyantly dressed gay man and a more “traditional” male-presenting guy. His stories show the ways that non-heterosexual people, too, butt up against the equivocal protection of the law—but also the ways in which male camaraderie builds on acquiescence to the continued objectification of women even by gay men.
Although this duality dovetails neatly with another of the big, haunting ideas in the play, so maybe all of that ambiguity is intentional: Schreck imagines the women in her family split into two mothers, two grandmothers, one who represents the person they wish and strive to be and one who represents the scared, angry, dangerous impulses toward self-protection and self-interest. Without ever saying so, the piece also evokes the idea of two Constitutions: one bold and capacious enough to contain us all, to look at its own flaws and rise above them—and one bound by the parochialism of its writers, who for all their ideals crafted a document that ultimately protected the interests of only a particular privileged fraction of the populace.
I started out not wanting this review to be entirely about politics, or at least not about my politics. But the show—like America right now—blends the personal and the political in ways that are as inextricable as the conversations I can’t seem to stop having just now, and its uncanny timeliness this week is only underscored by its moments of actual audio recording of Supreme Court arguments from cases addressing women’s protection by the law. What the Constitution Means to Me isn’t hopeful, really; in fact it ends with a debate (between Schreck and an inordinately poised high school debater, a role split between Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams, both of whom are real-life debate-team members) over whether we should abolish the Constitution and start over. (An audience member gets to vote; it’s a little gimmicky, and a little hard to make it feel unrehearsed, but the seriousness with which both participants embrace the mission holds up anyway.)
Still, it lights a brave spark: that our acknowledgement of and willingness to engage with one another as people are the only things that can save us now. Sometimes the only thing to do is make sure that the private, harrowing conversations become public ones, and amplify as many as you can, to make sure that none of us are living them alone. Telling unadorned stories that grapple with our personal and historical legacies may not be sufficient for artistic genius or real political change—but right now it sure feels like a necessary starting point.