By Paige Allen
August 27, 2019
After seeing What the Constitution Means to Me, one thought was clear in my mind: This play should be required viewing for every single person in the United States of America.
Heidi Schreck and her play cry out to be heard and heeded. You leave feeling simultaneously proud to be living in a country where a woman can do what Schreck does every night and deeply disturbed that the incidents she recounts and statistics she provides describe that very same country.
Schreck explains the basic conceit of her play at its beginning. When she was fifteen, she traveled the country performing speeches about what the United States Constitution meant to her. With the prize money she was awarded from those speeches, Schreck was able to pay her way through college. What the Constitution Means to Me is at once a personal reincarnation of this teenage Schreck through eyes of Schreck today and a universally urgent portrait of what the Constitution means to all of us (particularly women, people of color, and immigrants) in the United States today.
Although written and primarily acted by Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me is not a one woman play. Schreck is joined onstage by Mike Iveson or Ben Beckley, depending on the night, to offer Iveson’s story relating to the Constitution and to represent (explicitly) the American Legion officer presiding over Schreck’s speeches and (implicitly) the White Man.
The play finishes with a live debate over whether to keep or abolish the Constitution between Schreck and Rosdely Ciprian or Thursday Williams, two high schoolers from New York City. Ciprian and Williams demand we look toward the future and consider what we want the United States to look like for young women of color like them in ten days, ten years, ten decades.
The direction of Oliver Butler should not be understated. The microscopic shifts between teenage Schreck and Schreck today, the moments Schreck looks at the Legionnaire (Out of a need for permission? Or a more basic fear?), and the movement from jokes which have the audience laughing out loud to devastating facts that leave us breathless are orchestrated by Butler and Schreck to appear effortless. Costume design is by Michael Krass, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar, and set design (which incorporates a wall covered in portraits of old, white men) by Rachel Hauck.
I cannot encapsulate all that is packed into Schreck’s ambitious yet accessible masterpiece. It is a gift that What the Constitution Means to Me reached a Broadway stage (thanks, Helen Hayes Theater!). The play feels both like a revelation from a higher power and a conversation with a good friend; you can never say with exact certainty what is scripted and what is not. As the political climate in which we live changes, so does Schreck’s play. When I saw the piece in late July, Schreck became particularly emotional when discussing immigrant rights, given current events at the time. One of the most distressing statistics cited regarding violence against women in the U.S., Schreck tells us, has actually risen since she began performing her play.
Throughout the play, I laughed and cried, felt hopeful and hopeless. Such is the nature of a play about a nation and a document both founded on contradictions, an over-230-year-old piece of paper which can and has been used to create incredible good and equally incredible harm.
I left the theater feeling not only inspired but obligated to inspire political change. I don’t think I’d be human if I didn’t.
BCS-friendliness rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
I paid $49 plus fees for a total of $61.50 to see What the Constitution Means to Me. I bought my tickets pretty far in advance, but through the closing of the play, seats were fairly available. My seat was high in the mezzanine/balcony, and this is one show I would have preferred being closer to the stage so I could really see Schreck’s facial expressions.