“What the Constitution Means to Me” – And you and you and you [MOVIE]
by Neely Swanson
“What the Constitution Means to Me,” is a delightfully thought-provoking and ultimately moving personal memoir that has universal meaning and appeal. A hit both on Broadway and off, “What the Constitution Means to Me” was written and performed by Heidi Schreck, previously known as a writer on “Billions” and “Nurse Jackie.”
Schreck, from middle school through high school, toured the country as a competitor in oratory contests sponsored by the American Legion. The topic, What the Constitution Means to Me, was personal and the outcome of the contests usually revolved around the clever and original ways in which this question was interpreted. Young Heidi, very into witches and spells, would weave a tale in which she described the Constitution as a cauldron into which a panoply of ideas would be thrown together, heated, mixed and result in a document to serve the people of the United States. Her biggest competitor, and this is ancient history, was a girl who likened the Constitution to a patchwork quilt.
Schreck sets the scene of those early competitions and then proceeds to give us a window into her 15 year-old self. Amazingly, without anything other than body language and raising the pitch of her voice, she becomes a believable teenager with those aches for acceptance and resentments at close competition. Explaining one or more amendments and their intent, one gets a good sense of who she was at that time and the both sophisticated and simultaneously naïve presentation that won her enough money to pay for college.
She soon segues into her adult self and the more mature musings of how those same amendments have had an impact on today’s real world situations, especially for women. She leads us back to a time when women had no recourse to protection, support, or anything remotely approaching parity. Her personal history was one in which the women in her family, dating back to her great great grandmother were abused, committed, and complicit in their own undoing for lack of a better expression. But I get ahead of myself here because this part of the play relates to her explanation of the Fourteenth Amendment – “…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.” In theory this amendment was to protect the civil rights of its residents, not just citizens. The fourteenth amendment was an important adjunct to the 13th amendment that freed the slaves, in that it gave the right to vote to all males, over the age of 21. It is also here that voting rights are unequivocally denied to women and native Americans. The fifteen year-old Heidi would have focused on the rights given, the adult Schreck helps us see the rights denied.
As the play progresses, it slowly and effectively becomes more and more personal, not just from her standpoint, but to us as well. She illustrates the fallibilities of the Supreme Court and the possibility of reversal, starting with the abhorrent “Dred Scott” decision. Another egregious miscarriage is the more recent “Castle Rock vs. Gonzalez” case. Ms. Gonzalez sued the Castle Rock police department because, despite many reports, appeals for help, and a TRO continually being violated by her abusive husband, they did nothing to stop her husband from killing their children. Her suit was based on the fact they denied her protection. She lost her case because Justice Scalia counter argued successfully that the use of “shall,” as in shall not “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” does not mean that a person “must” be protected, only that they “may” be protected. In other words, it was okay for the Castle Rock police to deny her protection.
In the final segment, a seamless transition, Schreck once again channels her youthful debate instincts and invites on stage a young teenager, Rosdely Ciprian, a high school debate champion herself, to debate the question “Should the Constitution be abolished.” A flip of the coin determines who will argue the pro- or con- side of the question.
Schreck has constructed her almost-one-woman show to build to an effective and emotional climax. In many ways, you really don’t see it coming, which makes it all the more effective and satisfying. She has not done this entirely alone. Mike Iveson stands in for all the American Legion members that Schreck encountered along the way. He is even allowed his own moment to interpret his own personal experience as relates to the 14th amendment stories that Schreck relates along the way. But it is Rosdely who shines as a revelation of expression, hope, and intelligence. How, you will ask, can anyone that age be that smart, that self-composed and assured? As a young woman of color, on the cusp of conquering the world, one hopes that the barriers to her success that are ever present will tumble at her feet. It is the least that she deserves.
The critiques are very few for this amazing piece. Director Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”) has, for whatever reason, tried to film this as one would a stand-up comedy show. She too often cuts away from the monologue on stage to shoot audience reaction and in so doing takes the viewer out of the moment, thereby diminishing the emotion instead of heightening it. We aren’t watching Chris Rock on stage and seeing audience reaction to how a joke lands. But this is just a small quibble.
“Our Constitution acknowledges that who we are now might not be who we will become.” Heidi could not ber more on point. Mark your calendar and do not miss this show!
“What the Constitution Means to Me” launches Tuesday October 16 on Amazon Prime.