This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Information Today under the title “Constitutional Catharsis” as part of the We the People column, which serves as a monthly update on the issues the current administration raises for all Americans. Other columns cover topics such as media literacy, fake news, LGBT+ patrons, and inclusivity.
What the Constitution Means to Me, a 100-minute play written by and starring Heidi Schreck, opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater on March 31, 2019, after an off-Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop. It received Tony nominations for Best Play and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play, among other industry award nods, and it was even a finalist for a 2019 Pulitzer Prize. Although originally slated for a 12-week run, Playbill announced on April 30 that performances would be extended through Aug. 24, 2019. For people who can’t get to New York by then, Theatre Communications Group is releasing the play as a book.
The following is Playbill’s synopsis:
Fifteen-year-old Heidi Schreck earned her college tuition money by winning Constitutional debate competitions across the United States. In her boundary-breaking new play, the Obie Award winner resurrects her teenage self in order to trace the profound relationship between four generations of women in her own family and the founding document that dictated their rights and citizenship.
Schreck tells NPR’s Jeff Lunden that the play explores how her female relatives’ lives “had been shaped by this document, circumscribed by this document, and, in some ways, harmed by this document.” Her favorite amendment is the ninth (i.e., “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”), because it “says there are rights that we did not list in this document. You have those rights. We don’t know what they are—we’re not going to tell you—but they’re there.”
Lunden says that Schreck hopes to go on tour—to both red and blue states—when the Broadway run ends. Director Oliver Butler tells Lunden that what’s going on in the news can influence an audience’s reaction to the play. For example, Butler says, “When [Schreck] talks about the 14th Amendment protecting you from the government taking anything or anyone from you—before we became aware of the children being taken away from their parents at the border, that didn’t hit in the same way.”
Thursday Williams, one of the high school students who debates Schreck at the end of the play (she alternates performances with another student, Rosdely Ciprian), says in the debate, “We have the oldest active constitution in the world. My opponent [Schreck] wants you to think this is a bad thing, but the reason it has lasted so long is because it gives ‘we the people’ the tools we need to free ourselves from tyranny.”
Playbill aggregates various media outlets’ reviews of the play at playbill.com/article/read-reviews-for-what-the-constitution-means-to-me-on-broadway. The following are some of the reactions.
New York’s Daily News: “Schreck is a gifted writer and this personal history is exceptionally compelling. All the way through the one-act piece, you keep admiring the cleverness of this structure and the way Schreck, both as creator and character, sets up the rules and intentionally undermines them. …”
Entertainment Weekly: “It’s no small achievement to eke laughs out of that material, but Schreck certainly does, her humor swinging from self-deprecating to the can-you-believe-these-guys variety. She makes clever use of audio clips of actual Supreme Court justices dithering over how birth control devices work, or debating the meaning of the word ‘shall.’”
The Guardian: “The show feels a little broader than it did Off-Broadway, a little spikier, a little more frenetic, sometimes but not always for the good. … It presents the US constitution as profoundly flawed, but capable of improvement. The promise of a more just, more equal union has not been foreclosed. But a more perfect solo show? Broadway won’t see one for years.”
The Hollywood Reporter: “The thoughtful craftsmanship that has gone into building the play is fully evident, notably in the skill with which Schreck relates her own history to the gaping holes in the Constitution where adequate protections for women should be. Without ever veering into lecture territory, she deftly ties her family stories to issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, sexual assault, gender equality and even the fundamental human right of personhood.”
Los Angeles Times: It is a “singularly charming, politically urgent and cathartically necessary play … [that] loses some of its emotional force in the final stretch. (The structural looseness does wear thin at points.) But in bringing to the stage a youngster [Williams or Ciprian] with the same passionate engagement of the [teenage orator] Schreck, the show ends on a note of optimism that the battle for social progress is in confident hands.”
The New York Times: “It is a tragedy told as a comedy, a work of inspired protest, a slyly crafted piece of persuasion and a tangible contribution to the change it seeks.” The closing debate is “an instance of theatrical activism at its purest, modeling the world the play hopes to achieve: one in which even first principles are open to vigorous, orderly debate, and in which all stakeholders, not just powerful ones, are invited to the podium.”
Observer: “Art can make a difference, it can improve you. But what does it take? Brutal honesty and plenty of facts. Schreck provides both in abundance—along with natural charisma and loads of humor. … The piece is a model of how a playwright-performer can use the memoir-monologue (a genre that can flounder in banal self-indulgence) and electrify it within a harrowing historical context.”
TheTheatreTimes.com: “The room to which [Schreck] brings us, an imagined American Legion in Wenatchee, Washington, its walls covered in photos of Legion veterans—all white and male—has no doors (scenic design by Rachel Hauck). She’s joined on stage only by one strict legionnaire and moderator (played by Mike Iveson, who also steps out of character to reflect on American liberty as a gay man).”
Towleroad: The play “is by turns deeply funny, heart wrenching, inspirational, and one of the most searing and enlightening pieces of political theatre in recent memory. If you have been paying attention and are mad as hell, if your faith in America has been tested past the breaking point, if you feel like putting your head between your knees and wailing until your voice runs hoarse, get yourself to the Helen Hayes Theatre. You’re in excellent company. ”
Variety: Schreck “is all smiles and so are we, anticipating a naive speech … about her personal appreciation of the U.S. Constitution. But by the end of the show, we’ve been stirred—and challenged—by her penetrating insights into that document. … Although she never drops her unthreatening demeanor of all-American niceness, Schreck takes a more acerbic tone as she works up to her true subject: the rights that the Constitution does not specifically guarantee women. … To her credit, Schreck doesn’t let righteous anger curdle into polemics. On the contrary, she closes with an uplifting message: ‘The only thing holding us together right now as a country is a collective faith in this document.’”