The first time I saw What the Constitution Means to Me, off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop last September, was the day that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had spoken so calmly, precisely, and movingly; the same day that Judge Brett Kavanaugh unraveled so dramatically that it made many think just his temperament and political bias should disqualify him from holding a seat on the Supreme Court.
To playwright and actor Heidi Schreck’s credit, she didn’t make as much of a meal out of what had occurred as she might have as we took our seats for her especially timely play.
And now, with this wonderful show deservedly on Broadway (at the Helen Hayes Theater, until June 9), she still doesn’t eye-roll, or make easy Trump jokes. This is still a sharply timely play, and it is both hopeful and painful, but mostly, hopeful—and a hearteningly diverse Broadway audience responds volubly in kind.
At this moment of peril for functioning democracy, Schreck is inviting us all to consider the document at the heart of so much American division, the document so often at the heart of the Supreme Court’s work and considerations. Her play asks: How solid is it, how mutable is it, what is it, and what should it be?
To do this, Schreck alternates personalities between her 15-year-old debate champion self and herself today in her almost late forties.
The play, directed by Oliver Butler, first premiered at Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks Festival in 2017. It is half a meditation on the Constitution, and half a meditation on the past, both Schreck’s and her family’s, and how both worlds and entities, the Constitution and Schreck’s world meet, combust, and inform each other. Here, the personal truly is political.
In front of us is a stage made to look by designer Rachel Hauck like an American Legion hall, this one in Wenatchee, Washington, its walls covered with the faces of nameless veterans. Schreck’s present-day friend Mike Iveson walks on to the stage dressed as a Legion officer. This is the area where she grew up: rural, conservative, anti-abortion.
Her mother today doesn’t have a copy of the speeches she gave back then, which is odd, Schreck says, as she keeps everything else, including a bag of hair dating back to when Schreck was 12 and she cut it off to look like Cyndi Lauper. There is much humor in this serious-minded interrogation.
We know who Schreck’s competitor is from times past: a fellow female teen from Kansas. Becky thinks the Constitution is a patchwork quilt, says Schreck with an eye roll. To Schreck it is a crucible of magic.
Schreck wryly reimagines the intense teenager she was where everything mattered so much. “I was 15, you know, so I had acne and braces,” she says. “It was nice to be valued for my brain.”
Iveson’s Legion officer tells us half the evening will be Heidi and Becky talking about the Constitution, the other half discussing an amendment yet to be drawn from a can.
The 15-year-old wide-eyed, big-talking Schreck tells us that she imagines us all in the audience as a male rapist or murderer whom she manages to convince not to attack her because we are both human beings.
If that is “a severe test,” so is the crucible of the Constitution she imagines. Those who framed the Constitution were, for Schreck, indulging in an act of “ethical visualization.”
The Ninth Amendment delights her the most, stating, “The enumeration, in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
These are the rights yet to come, the rights that could be. It didn’t forbid the young Schreck from having Reba McEntire as an imaginary friend (no, not that Reba McEntire).
Then she talks about the 14th Amendment, “a giant, super-charged force field protecting all of your human rights.” It “facilitated the desegregation of schools and trains and hospitals—though that took almost a hundred years.” At the time this was all for men.
As time progresses, it becomes clear this will not be a conventional debating competition. We will never meet Schreck’s Kansas nemesis, and as the play becomes more and more personal, the notion that this is a re-enactment of a debate competition from Schreck’s past recedes further; and soon Schreck divests herself of her 15-year-old self completely.
The sharpest parts of the production are Schreck talking about her personal experiences around abortion and male violence against women. These are woven deep into her own and her family’s experience; a story of her own mother’s bravery particularly stands out.
Shreck is such an engaging performer, she still somehow cleverly studs wit into this confessional, noting that she got pregnant while playing Miss Julie at a tiny theater in Seattle. “By the actor playing Jean. Obviously. We were performing on a double bill with Springtime, a tender love story between two women. In retrospect, I really wish I had been cast in that play instead.”
With Iveson, she recounts the history of domestic violence laws running from 1800 B.C. to the present day. Iveson himself, disrobed from his Legion costume, has a monologue, relating his personal experiences of masculinity and homophobia.
If the debate structure has all but melted away by this point, it reasserts itself with the appearance of Rosdely Ciprian, a teenage debater from New York City who has been debating since the second semester of sixth grade. (Ciprian alternates this real-person role with Thursday Williams.)
Ciprian is intelligent, fast, wry, and more than a match for Schreck, and Schreck meets Ciprian in a similar spirit as they verbally spar over whether the Constitution should be abolished.
Who takes what position will change night to night. The night this critic was there (on Broadway), Ciprian argued that it should and Schreck argued that it should not.
The audience is encouraged to cheer and clap, and then one audience member delivers a ruling on who the winner is that night. This critic thought Ciprian gave the most persuasive argument, but alas, she was not judged the winner that night.
In half-light at the end, Ciprian and Schreck sit back to back on the stage and mull a set of audience questions. This ends with Ciprian imagining who she will be in 30 years and what her life will be like.
The answer is personal, but its emotional kick is profound, and gives you hope that the country will one day be under the guiding hands of such inspiring young people as Ciprian. That optimism echoes Shreck’s purpose with the play: This isn’t a debate play or a play that reanimates a debate structure. It is angry, but with a forthright, unsinkable smile and implicit belief in a healthily democratic future.
“We the People,” the Constitution begins, and Schreck’s play crystallizes the principle as both optimistic ideal and passionate, uncompromising challenge.
This is a revised review of a piece that first appeared on Sept. 30, 2018.
Ain’t No Mo’
Ain’t No Mo’ (Public Theater, to April 28) is a set of satirical and piercing portraits of black life in an America under Donald Trump. Written by the extremely talented Jordan E. Cooper and directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, the play also stars Cooper as Peaches, an airline worker checking passengers in for the last flights of black Americans returning to Africa.
That, the play suggests, is how bad racism has become, that is how attacked and alienated black Americans have come to feel. That time is within our lifetimes. That, the play suggests, with white supremacy in the ascendant and with its lauded avatar in the White House, is the trajectory we are on.
The production opens with the usual pre-show announcement from the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis, interrupted by Cooper-as-Peaches, making it clear this is a black piece of theater, with black voices front and center. An uproarious funeral unfolds of a man being laid to rest the night of Barack Obama’s election. A new era is beginning, until it suddenly isn’t.
The other sketches—starring Fedna Jacquet, Marchant Davis, Simone Recasner, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, and Crystal Lucas-Perry—are variously funny and serious. They include a woman considering her future after the death of her male partner, and a Real Housewives-style talk show sketch, with a woman claiming to be “trans” as in trans-racial, leading to collective furious disbelief among her black castmates.
A rich black family face the consequences of the sudden liberation from their cellar of an aggrieved servant, and a subsequent flood of self-revelations around their own cultural identities.
If some of the sketches and small-plays-within-the-play don’t quite have the intended impact, its anarchic, questioning pulse is the welcome constant.
The play begins with the audience being invited to deposit cards into a piece of luggage, Miss Bag. On those cards are our choices of examples of African American culture. Miss Bag returns later in the play’s denouement, as the last plane prepares to go to Africa.
Will Peaches and the bag make the plane, or will they miss it? And what would it mean for this country if the bag and all it contained and meant, stayed—if there were no black people? Except the fabulous Peaches, of course.
You may laugh a lot during Ain’t No Mo’, until suddenly, and with a thud, you are not.