What the Constitution Means to Me (seen September 13, 2019 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater) reminded the Steiny Road Poet of the long-standing fascination with stories about exceptionally smart children who win spelling bees, such as the musical The
25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The explosive energy of an idealist and innocent child is what ignites both of these theater pieces. While the differences are many, the take away from What the Constitution Means to Me is huge. Without mentioning the name of the United States 45th president, Heidi Schreck, walking out on stage first as the playwright, established that the content of this play is in reaction to what is going on politically in the US.
The story about a 15-year-old girl earning money for college by participating in American Legion competitions where the merits of the
American Constitution are praised and analyzed is Schreck’s real life story. The stories about her great grandmother, a mail order bride who went crazy in the state of Washington (conjecture is she was abused by her logger husband), and her grandmother, a battered woman who testified against her daughter’s accusation that her step-father was not only a wife and child beater but a rapist, are also too horribly true.
And yet, this play is a comedy—the 15-year-old Schreck called the Constitution a crucible in which rights are tested and tried like a mix that goes into a witch’s cauldron. Yes, a comedy because how else can a playwright keep the tension of inhumane acts in check? What Schreck
as playwright is addressing is how many of the writers and contributors of the Constitution were slave owners, including James Madison who is credited first with writing the document. More to Schreck’s overall point is that the US Constitution was originally written to protect the rights of wealthy white men and that protection is the only one that continues to be upheld.
Among the many examples of injustice Schreck provides is the one of Jessica Lenahan Gonzales who asked for police to enforce a restraining order against her abusive husband who went on to kill their three daughters. Lenahan Gonzales took her suit against the Colorado police
all the way to the Supreme Court as a breach of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits states from denying any person equal protection of the laws. (The Fourteenth Amendment was passed during Reconstruction to ensure the citizenship of former slaves.) Justice Scalia, whose voice Schreck provides in his majority opinion, found no constitutional obligation to enforce the restraining order. Schreck also provides a recorded interview with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who,
when asked about when women’s rights will be upheld, said when there are nine of us. Ginsberg’s meaning is that women’s rights will only be addressed satisfactorily when the US has a Supreme Court that seats all women in its nine chairs.
The play has no theater magic—no trapdoors, no deus ex machina. The set is realistic and boring—an American Legion hall with endless framed
photos of white men. What keeps this play moving is the playwright as both creator and performer. Breaching the Fourth Wall—that invisible barrier between the performers and the audience, she constantly goes back and forth from reality to the imagination. If there are any trapdoors, it might be when Schreck asks everyone in the audience to take the role of a white man so that she can step back into the set and be her 15-year-old self competing for the money she needs for college. If
there is any hope of a god in a machine descending from the heavens to save American women from laws that do not favor them, it might be the sudden flurry of ushers rushing into the audience to distribute ACLU produced booklets of the US Constitution to remind her audience that it is up to us all to correct and improve equal protection of the laws.
While the main thrust of this play suggests a one-woman play, Schreck carefully implants two other characters. One is a man played by Mike Iveson who is mainly the American Legion contest moderator, until he
sheds his formal costume (jacket, shirt and tie) and tells us in his t-shirt that he is Mike Iveson who came out slowly in his actual life as a gay man. Schreck said she wanted some good male energy on the stage with her. The other performer is Rosdely Ciprian (her actual name), a sophomore in a New York City high school whose purpose is to debate the playwright about whether to keep the American Constitution or to write a new one that includes rights for everyone, universal healthcare,
and reasonable regulations for care of our planet.
Gertrude Stein said, “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.” The US Constitution did little to protect her rights as a single woman, a lesbian, and a Jew. So she lived most of her life as an ex-pat in Paris. Steiny hopes to redeem the American Constitution by getting folks to vote in the next election for a new president.
What the Constitution Means to Me runs 110 minutes without
intermission. January 2020 is the start of the play’s national tour, beginning at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It will play 40 weeks in 22 cities. The Washington production by Oliver Butler was very lucky to see Heidi Schreck in the lead role.
Performance Photos - Joan Marcus