Lately, whenever people ask for advice on what theater to see in New York, the show I’ve mentioned more than any other is Heidi Schreck’s What The Constitution Means To Me. That’s because this unusually smart and charming, tactically humble play, drawn from Schreck’s teenage experiences competing in debates about the U.S. Constitution in American Legion halls, seems to me in a class of its own.
The rarity isn’t just that it’s entertaining and informative in ways that even the jaded and well-informed are likely to enjoy. It’s also that the particular questions the show poses about citizenship, privacy, domestic violence, reproductive freedom, enumerated rights, and much more tap directly into the awful anxieties we’re all feeling right now over the state of our democracy.
Interestingly enough, What The Constitution Means To Me is deeply, even confrontationally feminist, even though it’s popular. How it pulls off this trick without getting preachy—considering how women are and aren’t equally protected, seen, and heard in our world—is fascinating in itself. One crucial factor is the way the show stays interactive despite being predominantly a monologue. Schreck is effectively in dialogue with her younger self, and also all the other women in her stories. She also makes sly, understated use of the guy who shares the stage with her (Mike Iveson, who she says represents “positive male energy”). Then, late in the action, she brings out an actual New York high schooler and debates the Constitution with her—a contest judged by a random audience member.
Just as important as all this, though, is that the show has such a generally genial profile (Schreck’s character calls herself “psychotically polite”) that its troubling stories and observations about women’s vulnerabilities, which ultimately stand for all of our vulnerabilities, never feel alien or arbitrary, like special pleadings. Instead they feel necessary, organic and universal, products of a conversation we’re all either already having with ourselves or should be having.
The other day, my friend Liz, who’d seen the show on my recommendation, and loved it, asked a practical question that I realized was more substantial than I’d previously understood: how is the meaning of the show’s ending affected by the different configurations of the debate each night? As Liz knew, I’d seen What The Constitution Means To Me twice, first at New York Theater Workshop in November and again at the Helen Hayes Theater in April. I had no strong feelings about the supposedly open ending—which tries to make the audience feel democratically involved in the debate—because it seemed obvious to me that the whole thing was scripted even though it was cleverly written to seem extemporaneous and accidental.
Thinking about it again with Liz, I realized hadn’t considered this deeply enough.
To explain things for the uninitiated: about fifteen minutes before What The Constitution… ends, Schreck brings out one of two teenagers (Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams alternate in the role) and introduces her as her partner in a debate over the question, “Should we abolish the United States Constitution?” Who takes which side is settled with a coin toss, the debate takes place, and then a randomly chosen spectator decides the winner.
Theoretically four different outcomes are possible. Either “Abolish” or “Keep” wins, argued either by the teenager or by Schreck. Now, at New York Theater Workshop the outcome I witnessed was a victory for “Abolish,” argued by Rosdely Ciprian. She forcefully insisted on scrapping the flawed and badly dated Constitution and replacing it with a fresh, positive-rights document sensitive to 21st-century realities. Schreck counter-argued that the Constitution remained a strong basis for improving democracy and that today’s politicians were unlikely to create a better document if given the chance. A 30ish dude from the second row took five seconds to decide in Rosdely’s favor, and the audience groaned their mild surprise along with slightly ambivalent clapping.
In a talkback afterward, Schreck said that this outcome was rare. The “Keep” side almost always won. The decision, however, was welcome and gave her confidence that her script’s arguments were balanced.
At the Helen Hayes Theater, I witnessed a different outcome. The “Keep” side won, argued by Thursday Williams. When this decision was announced (by a reluctant 40ish woman in the first row), the audience erupted in ardent applause that felt a lot like patriotic cheerleading.
I recognize now that all this was much more interesting—and unpredictable—than I gave it credit for. Most audiences on and off Broadway skew older, and it’s perfectly understandable that most of these parent-generation spectators incline to favor the teenagers—either from real benevolence or the false kind known as virtue signaling.
A subtler aspect of this reaction, though, has to do with how the “Abandon” proposal necessarily sounds in the mouths of different debaters. As Schreck said at the NYTW talkback, the “Abandon” position is usually seen as risky, even reckless. Given that presumption, one inevitably asks, who does middle-aged Schreck think she is to impose such a political dice-roll on an innocent youngster, possibly threatening her future? The radicalism of “Abandon” is fine if it comes from the teenager herself, but elders (like ourselves) feel obligated to leave kids a world with as many political protections as possible. Is that kind of caution part of the problem, or the solution to our current political impasse? You get to decide!
It should be said that neither Ciprian nor Williams is a pushover or a wallflower. Both are extraordinarily poised and self-possessed young people who easily convince you they know the full consequences of their arguments. Since that’s impossible, though, the illusion of it becomes an important part of the singular beauty of this odd dramatic anti-spectacle, which outlines a possible revolution only to leave it up to us to carry it out if we dare. This revolution will consist of nothing more or less subversive than truly listening and sharing stories with one another, refusing easy cynicism, and joining each other in face-to-face civic engagement in absurdly old, communal institutions like American Legion halls, or the theater.
By Heidi Schreck
Directed by Oliver Butler
Helen Hayes Theater
This article appeared in Jonathan Kalb on May 6, 2019, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.