After enjoying an acclaimed extended off-Broadway run, Heidi Schreck’s elaborate public debate experiment, What the Constitution Means to Me, has finally bowed on Broadway. The move to Broadway bestows a bit of pomp on the proceedings that may be a little paradoxical. In fact, Schreck’s entire project is to de-pompify the US Constitution — to remove some of its mystique and attempt to reinvigorate the creaky living document.
Schreck does this primarily by enlisting that most energized and impassioned of citizens to help her: the teenage girl. For most of the play, the teenager in question is Schreck herself, bringing all the ebullience of a typical teen girl, in her case one obsessed with witches, theater, and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing. For the final third, she debates one of two actual teenagers, freshman Rosdely Ciprian and senior Thursday Williams. A champion debater in high school, Schreck paid for her college tuition by debating the merits of the Constitution through a string of American Legion competitions — a time she clearly sees as a nostalgic moment when 15-year-old her began to own her ideas and her self-expression.
Though Schreck is in some sense an unreliable narrator, we believe in the portrait she presents of her younger, vibrant, and earnest self. By upfronting her hardworking ability to pay her way through college, she deliberately frames her younger counterpart as an idealized character, an emblem of the American dream. Who better, then, she suggests, to guide us through a meditation on democracy?
There’s a magical power in a teenage girl explaining the Constitution to a modern audience. Schreck’s inner teen is full of passion and confidence, speaking from a place of earnest faith in her country and its foundation, while also embodying optimism for the future. It’s a sweetly vulnerable state that the adult Schreck, a wryer contrarian who has no trouble arguing that we should abolish the Constitution altogether, tenderly tries to preserve in her past self. And it mostly works; if you loved the rap battles in Hamilton, you should enjoy Schreck’s similar animated, personal attempt to enliven what could be seen as dry history.
Schreck makes democracy fun again — even while emphasizing the fraught nature of the Constitution itself
Much of Constitution is emotional rather than cerebral. For instance, at one point, Schreck rhapsodizes on the power of the Ninth Amendment, a moment that delighted me; when I was 15, I studied the Bill of Rights for Academic Decathlon and wound up besotted with this specific amendment, just as Schreck was then. There was something dazzling and exhilarating about the power and scope of an entire amendment that was devoted to protecting our right as citizens to, say, order pizza. As seen through the eyes of the precocious teenage Schreck, the Constitution becomes a tool of human ingenuity and wonder; we’re given permission to feel a certain amount of positivity about the march of American progress, such as it is.
But Schreck also balances that sense of wonder with healthy cynicism. The Founding Fathers were wary of delineating rights at all, she reminds us, to the extent that the Bill of Rights is also something of a giant do-over that still creates consternation and confusion today. A tacit takedown of originalism — the idea in legal scholarship, espoused most prominently by the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, that judges should abide by an assumed understanding of what the Constitution’s authors “originally” intended — undergirds much of Schreck’s critique, and for good reason. She never lets us forget that, as originally conceived, the Constitution was created to protect the rights of white male landholders and no one else.
Schreck lets her unease about this paradox underlie her experience with the Constitution and its impact on her history, seesawing between ebullience and somber reflection when she tells, for example, the story of her great-grandmother’s immigration to Seattle as a vulnerable mail-order bride with little legal protections (one of an influx of women who were recruited to join the community, sometimes called “Mercer Girls”). Schreck’s great-grandmother ultimately died very young, after being institutionalized for “melancholia”; the domestic abuse she may have experienced, and which was thereafter experienced by subsequent generations of women in her family, created a tenuous contradictory strain of resilience and denial within her mother’s consciousness and, to some extent, Schreck’s own.
All these unknowns and paradoxes ultimately limited how the women in Schreck’s family were able to interact as they dealt with hard questions surrounding domestic violence, teen pregnancy, and abortion.
In other words, Schreck suggests, the Constitution’s role in her family was to render each of its women vulnerable and deprived of full bodily autonomy in ways she’s still grappling with as an adult today. As she personally recounts her lineage and place within this legacy, she heightens the emotional urgency of Constitution: The law of the land is not, Schreck would have you understand, a staid document gathering mold on a shelf somewhere; it’s a force that fundamentally reaches into our lives, shaping everything from our understanding of ourselves to our interpersonal relationships.
While tying the Constitution into her own family history, she also outlines the historical struggle to apply the 14th Amendment’s due process clause to women. This thread culminates in Scalia’s sobering 2005 Supreme Court ruling that police do not have a constitutional duty to enforce laws in order to protect someone — in this case, a woman whose three children were killed by their violent father after police declined to arrest him — on the grounds that the 14th Amendment’s clause about not depriving someone of “property” doesn’t apply to a woman bearing a restraining order.
The ruling undermined numerous state laws that had been put in place to attempt to combat domestic violence. Schreck uses it to argue her point that the Constitution was not built to recognize the rights and needs of women — a case in point of ”a culture that has made it quite clear it has zero interest in protecting you”; the “you” here being, well, most of us.
Schreck’s ultimate thesis may be that the Constitution needs teen girls to whip it into shape, and I’m fine with this as a legal opinion
At times, as directed by the Debate Society’s Oliver Butler, the pace of Schreck’s project occasionally flags. When Schreck brings out her friend Mike Iveson to discuss his experiences with gender-based shaming and homophobia as a queer man, Constitution starts to feel like it’s vying for the tag of inclusivity at the expense of polished theater; his segment, though also an important personal anecdote, breaks up Schreck’s narrative flow and feels more disconnected and unfocused than Schreck’s personal accounts. But this is all, again, about driving home Schreck’s point about just how thoroughly the Constitution ignores most of us.
“A lot of us are forced to be two people in this culture,” Schreck observes at one point. While we all carry our own histories and lived experiences, on another level, many of us have learned to compromise our identities to survive the steady dehumanization of living as “less than,” legally.
But that’s where Schreck’s teen girl energy kicks in: When she brings on Williams (who alternates performances with Ciprian) to join her in the debate, Williams brings with her all the galvanizing force of today’s youth, who refuse to accept a subordinate place in the patriarchal hierarchy of US culture. Williams’s presence onstage is almost more relevant than the argument she’s making about whether to abolish the Constitution altogether; her voice is a reminder that if democracy is in a constant state of flux, progress can come at the hands of hungry young women with ambition and big dreams, as it was once afforded only to networks of men with established power.
The final third of Constitution is a bit of a gleefully interactive free-for-all, which is designed to make you feel that way about democracy itself. By the time you’re being given your own pocket copy of the Constitution, the question is already lingering in the air: What if the Constitution, with all its faults and flaws and glimmerings of greatness, was as personal to us as our own family histories, or our favorite ’90s teen romance?
What if the Constitution meant something to all of us?