Arts + Scene » Screens

On Paper

What the Constitution Means to Me

By

comment

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME. Spoiler: We live in trying times. While hopeful news occasionally filters through the hateful noise of late — feels like a first for this year of less auspicious ones — and while some of it has induced an almost palpable unburdening, a lightening of the the spirit, it also serves as a sobering reminder that we are still in a whole lot of trouble. That notion of cautious optimism (emphasis on the caution), or of hope bounded by concern and shadowed by fear, sometimes feels like the best we can expect in the United States of America circa 2020. It is also, appropriately enough, part of the tonal shading of Heidi Schreck's not-quite-one-woman show What the Constitution Means to Me, which arrived streaming a couple of weeks ago after a significant Broadway run. As she relates in an early monologue, Schreck has been working on and performing this material for a decade, and each time she performs it she finds the world has changed, usually not for the better — all the more reason to keep doing the work. It frustrates beyond words that we should be deep into the 21st century for material like this to gain traction but one hopes late is actually better than never.

The point of departure for the play is Schreck's experience, at 15, of touring the country performing a persuasive speech about the U.S. Constitution, competing with other teenagers for cash prizes. She was, as she unabashedly admits, pretty good at it and thereby bankrolled her college education. From the stage, Schreck recreates the structure of the competition, first performing her prepared speech (though she informs us her mom threw away the original document), then "extemporaneously" discussing the finer points of a Constitutional amendment selected at random. As the play moves along, though, she increasingly digresses from the remembered material, breaking character to address us rather than the imagined judges of the competition. She folds in vignettes from her life in the intervening decades, using her experience to elucidate the power and pitfalls inherent in the document that defines life as it is lived in this country. With the Ninth and 14th amendments as exhibits A and B, she then expands the material, incorporating the formation of the state of Washington, news items from around the country and more of her own life to demonstrate that the Constitution, while a valid, vital and potentially liberating thing, has been used pretty consistently to protect the interests of wealthy white men and, even more insidiously, to strip away the rights and legal protections of women and Black and Indigenous people and people of color, effectively reinforcing a culture of abuse in fear. In one chilling and hideously recent example, the Supreme Court ruled that police were not constitutionally bound to protect a woman with a restraining order against her husband. The police department in question was being sued by one such woman, whose husband kidnapped and murdered their three children.

It's not all bad news, though: Schreck, despite having to compartmentalize or actively disremember the harm visited upon herself, her family and the underserved in general, still celebrates the intent and sophistication of the document in question, its capacity to protect and provide freedom to everyone. Her reverence comes with a stipulation, though. She emphasizes the importance of the Constitution (any constitution) as a living document, that it should grow and adapt to reflect and guide changes in culture over time. It does not and cannot exist in the vacuum of the past; treating it as though it does is unconstitutional.

Throughout the play, Schreck is joined on stage by Mike Iveson, first playing the proctor of the re-imagined speech competition and then, shedding his costume, delivering a monologue about his own life. In both roles, he serves as a leavening agent, a hint of positive masculinity to offset the overwhelming toxicity. At the end of the prepared material, Schreck invites a high school student to the stage to engage in a real-time debate as to whether the Constitution should be abolished. In the filmed version available to us, that student is 14-year-old Rosdely Ciprian, a New York City debater with more charisma, composure and force of character than pretty much any person I've ever encountered. The end credits are then intercut with footage of another debater, 19-year-old Thursday Williams, who might be more formidable still.

What the Constitution Means to Me isn't cinematically dynamic — this is very much a filmed version of a play; my wife listened to much of it from another room and didn't feel its impact was significantly diminished. And that is because the material, the intimacy and hurt and hope, and Schreck's commitment to it transcend medium. It doesn't hurt that her writing conceals wicked sophistication with superficial simplicity. She has created a major work that speaks to the urgency of this moment with care and concern. It's a civics lesson rendered as art, something we all need. NR. 100M. AMAZON PRIME.

Add a comment