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.